June 11th, 2014

Brickbat: A Little Appeasement Never Hurt

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Henry DeGroot thought it would be a good idea to write pro-democracy messages on the notebook of a fellow student. Given that DeGroot was attending a school in Beijing on a semester abroad program, he shouldn't have been surprised that school officials gave him five hours of detention. But he was surprised when he got home and was barred from attending his prom by the Newton, Massachusetts, school system. Newton officials say DeGroot embarrassed the principal of the Chinese school and may have endangered the relationship between the school systems.

Jacob Sullum on the 'Weird' and 'Scary' Open Carry Movement

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Are people who assert their Second Amendment rights by carrying rifles and shotguns into stores and restaurants "weird" and "scary"? At least one staff member at the National Rifle Association (NRA) thought so, and he expressed that view in an online commentary that the organization felt compelled to retract last week after it caused an uproar among gun rights advocates. To some extent, Jacob Sullum says, the episode reflects divisions among Second Amendment activists, many of whom view the NRA, despite its reputation for adamantly resisting gun control, as insufficiently zealous. But Sullum argues that the brouhaha also highlights a shift in American attitudes regarding the public display of guns.

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Are School Homicides 'Becoming the Norm'?

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This is a still from Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT. I thought about using a still from Rene Daalder's MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, which is a much better movie, but this image seemed to be a better fit. And that's it for this episode of 'Behind the Scenes at Hit & Run.'In the aftermath of yesterday's shooting at an Oregon high school, the president worried that such slayings are "becoming the norm." I've written skeptically in the past about whether the number of mass shootings in America is actually increasing, as the word becoming implies—see my posts here, here, and here—but there's always a haze of uncertainty around those numbers, thanks to the varying definitions of "mass shooting" that different people use.

But maybe that isn't the best thing to be measuring in the first place. The Oregon incident isn't a "mass" shooting at all—the gunman killed two people, and one of those was himself—but it obviously speaks to the same sorts of fear and grief. If your son was just shot, after all, it's hardly a comfort that his classmates survived. A map darting around the Internet this week claims to show all the school shootings since Sandy Hook. Note the modifier: school, not mass.

So how frequently are people killed at school? The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) keeps a running count of such homicides, with "at school" defined to include deaths not just on school property but "while the victim was on the way to or from regular sessions at school or while the victim was attending or traveling to or from an official school-sponsored event." You might quibble about whether those off-campus killings belong in this category, but still, it's a straightforward definition that doesn't get bogged down in how many people die in one attack or, for that matter, what weapon was used to murder them.

As it happens, the bureau published a new report on school violence this month. Here is the relevant chart:

With the caveat that with numbers this low it's easy to be misled by random noise, I'll point out that the figure has fallen. Note also that these are raw totals, not deaths per population. A chart of school homicide rates would show an even steeper decline.*

But has that decline come to an end? As you can see, the bureau's figures only go through the 2010–11 school year, thus excluding the Sandy Hook massacre and everything since. Twenty children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook, making the event bloody enough to cause a spike in 2012–13 all by itself. We don't have enough data to say for certain whether that year was an outlier like 2006–07 or the start of a new trend, but the authors do offer some tentative numbers for the period since the massacre. According to "preliminary counts from media reports," they write, the U.S. saw "17 school-associated violent deaths between December 15, 2012, and November 14, 2013"—11 homicides and six suicides, with six of the dead being of student age.

Those numbers might sound surprisingly low if you've seen the aforementioned map of school shootings since Sandy Hook, which draws on data from the gun-control group Everytown. In part that's because its count stops this month instead of last November, but it's also because it includes colleges. (Of the 74 incidents listed by Everytown, 35 occured on or near a college campus.**) The map also includes nonfatal shootings, including accidental discharges and at least four events in which no one was injured at all. And some of its items qualify as "school shootings" only under a rather broad understanding of the phrase. While this killing, for example, did take place in an elementary school parking lot, it happened at night, long after the students and teachers had gone home. The victim was 19.

This much is clear: If you're wondering where kids are likely to die, the answer plainly isn't a classroom. (Quoting the BJS report one more time: "During the 2010–11 school year, 11 of the 1,336 homicides among school-age youth ages 5–18 occurred at school.") And in the period for which we have clear data, the school homicide rate moved in the same direction as the overall homicide rate: downward. To bring it still lower, the first question to ask is what happened to get us that far.

(* The researchers are still interviewing officials about some of these incidents, so there's a chance that some will be reclassified in future reports.)

(** The BJS report includes a separate discussion of college-level crime. "Fifteen murders occurred on college campuses in 2011, the same number as in 2010," it notes. The authors don't go into detail about homicides in earlier years, but they do say the "number of on-campus crimes reported in 2011 was lower than in 2001 for every category, except for forcible sex offenses.")

Sheldon Richman on the Media's Dishonest Bergdahl Narrative

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BergdahlWhen it comes to national security matters, the news media couldn’t do a better job misinforming the public if it tried. The latest example is the portrayal of the five Taliban officials traded for Bowe Bergdahl.

The media of course has an incentive to accentuate controversy. In the Bergdahl deal, this includes portraying the five Taliban prisoners as, in Sen. John McCain’s words, “hard-core jihadists responsible for 9/11.” McCain is wrong, but the major news outlets don’t care. Over and over again, the five are identified as terrorists. Facts take a backseat to drama and conflict.

But according to Sheldon Richman, the five Taliban prisoners only fell into U.S. hands because the U.S. created a strong incentive for rival warlords to rat out personal enemies.

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a war of choice, not necessity, writes Richman. American forces made it worse by indiscriminately placing a price on the head of any Afghan whom someone else was willing to destroy.

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A.M. Links: Cantor Loses to Tea Party Rival, U.K. Banning Synthetic Drugs, Robbery Caught on Gamer's

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Reason TV: In Praise of Psychedelics

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In 1985, despite its widespread reputation as an effective therapeutic tool, the DEA classified MDMA as a Schedule I drug. The following year, Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) with the goal of developing psychedelics into legal prescription drugs.

Today, MAPS researchers are finding that MDMA can be a therapeutic aid for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, can be effective at helping addicts. Reason TV talked to Doblin and other psychedelic researchers at the 2013 Psychedelic Science Conference in Oakland, California, to learn more.

View this article.

Our Short National Cheese Nightmare Is Over: FDA Backtracks on Wood-Aged Cheese

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Earlier this week, I posted about a potential Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crack down* on cheese aged on wood surfaces. It's a practice that's been going on for hundreds of years, and may be more sanitary than aging cheese on plastic. Cheesemakers, libertarians, and a whole bunch of others were rightly outraged, and began making this known. 

Well, good news: The FDA announced Tuesday that wood-aged cheese is safe. From Dairy Herd Management magazine:

The agency said it did not have a new policy banning wooden shelves in cheese-making, adding there was no requirement in recent food safety regulations requiring the agency to address the issue.

Well, okay, but is there an old policy or an old requirement? Because in January the agency cited several New York cheesemakers for using wooden shelves. Industry blog Cheese Underground said this was unusual, as the FDA has traditionally deferred to state policy on this; but the rollout of 2011's Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has been compelling all sorts of weird new FDA meddling

When the New York Agriculture Department asked for clarification, Monica Metz, an official with the FDA's Dairy and Egg Branch, said the wooden shelves didn't conform to FDA "good manufacturing practice" regulations. But the FDA clarified Tuesday that it had never taken action against a cheesemaker based solely on the use of wood. It's just that these particular wooden shelves at these particular places were poorly cleaned.

Oh my. Has this all just been so much dairy industry hysteria? Or is the FDA backpedaling amidst the criticism? From the FDA's statement yesterday, it sounds to me like more of the latter.  

"In the interest of public health, the FDA's current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be 'adequately cleanable' and properly maintained," Lauren Sucher, an FDA spokeswoman, said in a statement.

"Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings," she said. "FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese."

My takeaway from all this seems to be that the FDA isn't mulling some major push to end aging cheese on wooden surfaces. But if it comes across it in (routine?) inspections, cheesemakers may be cited. 

"Good for the FDA for backing down," wrote Forbes contributor Greg McNeal. "Although it’s unfortunate that they are dodging accountability by claiming they did not change their policy." At Cheese Underground, Jeanne Carpenter thanked consumers for writing letters, signing a petition, posting on Facebook, and generally making "standing up for artisan food a main-stream American issue." The FDA's "back-stepping in both tone and message is welcome news for the hundreds of cheesemakers across the country who have invested their life savings in making premium artisanal cheese and aging it on wooden boards," she wrote.

* I despise this phrase, but I've yet to find a better alternative. Taking suggestions...

A. Barton Hinkle on the Growing Epidemic of Useless Government

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Last week, Virginia's congressional delegation wrote a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe urging him to set up a task force to address the "growing heroin epidemic in Virginia." Many localities, they note, "are on track to see double the number of heroin overdose deaths over last year."

Let's stipulate that any heroin overdose is horribly tragic and the ideal number of heroin users would be zero, writes A. Barton Hinkle. That said, terms like "epidemic" and "double the number" obscure as much as they clarify. It's true that heroin deaths in Virginia have nearly doubled. They have risen from 101 (in 2011) to 197 (in 2013). That's less than the number who died in 2012, the most recent year available, from intestinal infections (212); septicemia, or blood poisoning (1,305); pneumonia (1,275); kidney failure (1,501); or falling (646). Are these "epidemics" that require special task forces? If not, does heroin?

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Fighting Hunger: Mutual Aid in Tucson

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Molly Thrasher of Try Freedom Stories has put together a video profile of One Can a Week, a small-scale, neighborhood-based anti-hunger program in Tucson, Arizona:

For those of you who'd rather read than watch, Thrasher wrote this description of the effort in a guest post for Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

"before submitting...to the all-absorbing authority of the State, the masses of the people made a formidable attempt at reconstructing society on the old basis of mutual aid and support""One Can A Week" is a neighborhood food collection program started in 2009. Peter saw families in Tucson struggling with poverty and hunger. The local food bank was not able to meet the demand. Peter asked his neighbors in his working class neighborhood, if they would donate just one can of food a week to help the needy. It worked. In the five years, his neighbors have collected 65,000 pounds of food and donated over $13,000 to the community food bank.

"One Can a Week" is the very definition of small-scale problem solving. Elinor Ostrom argued that many small-scale problems could be solved by relying on the local knowledge of those in the community. Peter saw a problem and knew that he could do something simply by working with his neighbors. This small project has had a huge impact but the significance of it is much larger. With similar small efforts in neighborhoods all over America, we could end the huge problem of hunger in our country.

Read the rest here. And check out Thrasher's IndieGoGo page, where she's raising funds for films about three more grassroots efforts against hunger.

Why Did GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Lose His Primary?

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Eric Cantor's primary loss last night took Washington by surprise. Almost no one saw it coming, not even Cantor. Throughout the campaign, the Republican House Majority Leader, who represents Virginia's seventh congressional district, denied there was any chance he would lose. He apparently seemed jovial and "happy-go-lucky" at a big-ticket fundraiser just yesterday morning, like someone who'd just seen news that his victory was assured, according to a source of Breitbart's Jonathan Strong.

Cantor certainly took the race seriously enough, at least in terms of cash—he placed ads on Fox News in his district, and outspent opponent Dave Brat by a huge margin, paying more just for steakhouse dinners than Brat spent on his entire campaign. Somehow, he still lost.

A successful primary challenge to a leadership candidate is incredibly rare. The last time a House majority leader was taken out in a primary was…well, there was no last time. It's never happened before. The position was created in 1899.

Because Cantor's primary loss was such a rare and unexpected event, there's no single ready explanation for what happened. Instead, there are a handful of competing narratives singling out Cantor's stance on immigration, his distance from his district's concerns, and his coziness with big business interests. Here are four possible explanations for Cantor's unexpected loss. 

It was about immigration reform and "amnesty": This is the argument you'll likely hear most often. As Strong writes, the story of the surprise loss "starts, and almost ends, with immigration." Much of the Republican base—the people who turn out for primaries—is dead set against any attempt to reform the immigration system in a way that legalizes current immigrants, and Cantor was seen by many as favoring those efforts. Brat, an economics professor, was a staunch opponent of recent immigration overhaul proposals, saying that bringing more people into the country would "increase the labor supply—and by doing so, lower wage rates for the working person. He charged Cantor with supporting "amnesty"—calling him "the number one cheerleader in Congress for amnesty"—a charge that Cantor denied in campaign fliers.

There's a counterargument here, however, a big part of which that Cantor was actually the member of GOP leadership least supportive of immigration reform. As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent argues, Cantor could better be described as an obstacle to passing an immigration overhaul; Cantor pushed for a vote to legalize DREAM act eligible immigrants as a way to allow the GOP to look gentler on immigrants without actually having to pass wholesale immigration reform. And one poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP)—which, yes, describes immigration reform in a rosy way and does not present potential tradeoffs—found that overall Cantor's district supports immigration reform.

It was about big business, crony capitalism, and corporate welfare: Brat made this a major theme of his insurgent campaign against the majority leader. Back in April, Politico reported Brat saying that "if you're in big business, Eric's been very good to you, and he gets a lot of donations because of that, right? Very powerful. Very good at fundraising because he favors big business. But when you're favoring artificially big business, someone's paying the tab for that. Someone's paying the price for that, and guess who that is? You."

Brat hammered Cantor for corporatist tendencies and big business connections in speeches. You can watch one in full here (via Zaid Jilani): 

It was about local-level constituent service: One thing is pretty clear—Cantor's district, as a whole, didn't much like him. In the PPP poll mentioned earlier, 63 percent of residents said they disapproved of the job that Cantor was doing in Congress, while just 30 percent approved. This is a district that leans heavily GOP and has voted for Cantor since 2001. But some reports suggest that locals were increasingly frustrated with Cantor's ambitious climb up the GOP leadership ladder, believing that it made Cantor a worse representative of local interests. As Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in his report on the loss, "Cantor's maneuvering on immigration was illustrative of a larger issue: a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda."

Political writer Robert Tracinski, who lives in Cantor's district, makes a similar point in a piece for The Federalist:

It's a strongly Republican district that spans across a very conservative stretch of rural Central Virginia, from the Richmond suburbs to Culpeper. So what were we going to do, vote for a Democrat? No, we were going to vote for Cantor.

And Cantor knew it. Because he didn't have to worry too much about getting re-elected every two years, his political ambition was channeled into rising through the hierarchy of the House leadership. Rise he did, all the way up to the #2 spot, and he was waiting in the wings to become Speaker of the House.

The result was that Cantor's real constituency wasn't the folks back home. His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That's who he really answered to.

It was about reform conservatism: Cantor recently appeared at a big confab hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on Room to Grow, the YG Network's new book of conservative reform proposals, which leads Vox's Ezra Klein to argue that Cantor's loss is bad news this brand of wonkier, policy-pushing conservatism: "Cantor, a founding member of the 'Young Guns,' was one of reform conservatism's patron saints. His loss suggests reform conservatism doesn't have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters. The Republican base, at least in Cantor's district, isn't in the mood for technocratic solutionism. It's still angry, and it still believes that any accommodation is too much accommodation."

My guess is that it's mostly some combination of the first three—that immigration anger played a role, that Brat's arguments about corporate connections resonated, and that part of the reason they resonated is that residents of Cantor's district felt like he had creature of Republican leadership rather than a representative of Virginia's seventh district. But given how unexpected this was to practically everyone, I don't have too much confidence in any of the explanations. If it was clear and obvious, then more people would have seen it coming. 

Update: A few more possibilities... 

Democrats staged an operation chaos to give Cantor the boot: That's the theory offered by Cantor's pollster, John McLaughlin, who last week found that Cantor had a 34-point lead. Turnout for this primary was unusually high, and in an email to National Journal, McLaughlin suggests that the surge may have been the result of Democratic meddling. "Untold story," McLaughlin wrote, "is who were the new primary voters? They were probably not Republicans." 

Virginia Republicans didn't want to vote for Cantor because he's Jewish: David Wasserman, an elections analyst for the Cook Political report, tells The New York Times that religion was a factor: "Part of this plays into his religion," Mr. Wasserman told the Times. "You can’t ignore the elephant in the room." The problem with this explanation is that it doesn't explain why that became an issue now. Cantor's religion has never been an issue in his district before. 

Some Pro-Immigration Groups Still Giving President Obama a Free Pass

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racist rethuglicanPresident Obama has had an awful track record on immigration policy. During his administration, there have been, for example, a record amount of deportations. Most recently, the administration has been criticized for dumping more than a thousand illegal immigrant children in Arizona. As immigration advocates decry the inhumane situation, the president insists he has little flexibility on immigration policy and must wait for Congress, even as on a slew of other issues—from No Child Left Behind to his own Obamacare—he's used questionable executive power to unilaterally change the law. Here no such legally questionable action would be needed. Immigration policy is within the purview of the executive branch, and it could choose to enforce the law in a different, and still completely legal, way.

Nevertheless, because most of them are liberal, some pro-immigration groups are, six years into Obama's awful immigration policy, still offering a free pass the man who as senator helped torpedo President Bush's immigration efforts nearly a decade ago.

Here is a statement, for example, released by the executive director of the group Presente.org, Arturo Carmona:

Eric Cantor's defeat at the hand's [sic] of a tea party extremist prove what many of us have been saying for quite some time: immigration reform is dead in this Republican Congress. In the face of growing xenophobic and racially charged extremism, the only thing that can stop the tearing apart of families and inhumane treatment of immigrants is executive action. We urge President Obama to face the facts, stand up to the xenophobic and hateful forces in America, and take action to stop deportations immediately. Anything less is unacceptable to Latinos across the country.

Got it? Some Republicans are xenophobic, therefore they are to blame for the president's "inhumane" actions. Rather than applying pressure on the Obama Administration by lobbing some well-deserved criticism at it, Presente.org chooses to demonize someone who has not yet even entered Congress. Not the man in charge of the government that's "tearing apart" families, but one man about to join a body of 535, whose party is in control of just one of the chambers.

David Brat may be awful on liberal immigration policy, but he's hardly a one-issue candidate who ran a one-issue campaign. Anti-immigration advocates may point to Cantor's loss as evidence that immigration reform is an electoral loser, but that pro-immigration advocates buy into this narrative so fully only makes sense if they're not interested in holding President Obama accountable for six years of awful immigration policy.

Though it would be too much to expect of a liberal special interest group, anyone truly concerned about xenophobia would have seen it in the actions and rhetoric of President Obama—and not just his immigration policy. Obama spent most of the 2012 campaign railing against outsourcing, a xenophobic policy position that considers foreign workers and their drive to work dangerous simply because they're not Americans.

Kid Twirls a Pencil in Class, N.J. Threatens to Take Him from His Dad and Requires Blood and Urine T

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ethan chaplinIn April, Ethan Chaplin was twirling his pencil in class when another kid—a bully, according to Chaplin—called out: "He's making gun motions, send him to juvie!"

The 13-year-old was yanked out of school and thereby commenced his 15 minutes of fame as sites like Huffington Post, as well as local cable news stations, took up his cause arguing that a suspension for pencil twirling was zero tolerance run amok.

The Vernon Township school district's interim superintendent claimed Ethan had never been suspended, but conceded he had been out of school for two days, telling the New Jersey Herald

"The story that we expelled or suspended a student is partially not true ... We did exclude" the student from attending until a proper psychological evaluation was done, interim Vernon Superintendent Charles Maranzano [said.]...

If a student "demonstrates odd behaviors, non-conforming behaviors, it causes us to take a closer look," he told the newspaper. "If a student gestures or demonstrates behavior that could be construed as a threat to others in a classroom... then that's also a trigger for us."

Ethan was back in class quickly, but too often these zero tolerance cases have second- and third-order effects. In Ethan's case, long after they thought the incident was resolved, his dad received some very scary paperwork from the state of New Jersey threatening to revoke his custody rights:

Ethan's father [Michael] received startling communication from New Jersey's Department of Child Protection and Permanency and Department of Children and Families.

"I received a letter from them saying they had found an incident of abuse or neglect regarding Ethan because I refused to take him for psychological evaluation," Michael said.

Panicked by the letter, Ethan's parents took him in for the evaluation, where he was required to give blood and urine samples.

No troubling psychological conditions were found (unless they've recently added "being an annoying fidget" to the DSM) but now the Chaplin family will likely endure a period of uncertainty and perhaps even home visits from social workers with the power to take away Ethan at any time.

Meanwhile, 13-year-olds may be idiots sometimes, but they're not dumb. Remember, the whole incident was triggered by a kid savvy enough to know that raising the specter of even a fake gun is a powerful weapon in the bullying wars.

John Stossel: Libertarians Aren't Isolationists, We're Realistic

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Both libertarians and conservatives want to keep America safe, though we differ on how best to do that. Most libertarians believe that attempts to create or support democracy around the world have made us new enemies and done harm as well as good. Some conservatives respond to that by calling us weak and delusional isolationists.

But libertarians do want America to participate in the world, we just don't want to run it, writes John Stossel. If it's realistic to acknowledge that America has dangerous enemies, it's also realistic to acknowledge that going to war is not always worth the loss of money and lives. War, like most government plans, tends not to work out as well as planners hoped. 

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Pro-Russian Separatists Are Flying the Confederate Flag. Why?

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The self-proclaimed leaders of the so-called people's republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine are taking some tips from the U.S., but in a way that most people will not find palatable: They adopted a modified version of the Confederate Flag. It holds no meaning in Eastern Europe, so to whom are these Russian-backed fighters trying to appeal? 

The Moscow Times reports:

The flag of the unrecognized Novorossia ["New Russia"] confederation is not entirely identical to the banner of the Army of Northern Virginia, as it lacks stars. …

But otherwise, it is the same as the Confederate flag, a blue diagonal cross bordered with white on a red background. General Lee would have been proud.

The pro-Russian rebels, known for their dislike of all things American, do not take direct inspiration from the U.S. secession movement or fear the implications of separatist bad luck that their flag entails. …

The official news website of the separatist People's Republic of Donetsk, part of Novorossia, on May 31 credited Ukrainian political analyst Mikhail Pavliv with creating the "official banner" of the self-proclaimed territory.

Yet, Pavliv, a support of the insurgency, told The Moscow Times he had simply stumbled upon the flag online somewhere.

It doesn't make much sense that anti-Americans, who already have their own Russo-centric images, would start waving this loaded American artifact. For comparison, wouldn't it be weird if instead of calling themselves "the State of Jefferson," the breakaway group in California picked up a name from 1860s Russia opposition politics and called themselves "the State of Mikhail Bakunin"? Transplanted foreign symbols just wouldn't resonate with locals, and Russia has long seen itself as above the racial tensions of America embodied in the Southern banner.

Now, there have been a few incidents of Europeans waving the rebel flag as a banner of anti-tyranny, such as at the fall of the Berlin Wall and, in fact, when pro-Western Ukrainians deposed their corrupt, pro-Russian president earlier this year. But, again, this separatist movement is anti-Western.

The insurgents, by their own admission, don't know jack about Dixie and certainly aren't defending its heritage. A lot of them are just Chechen mercenaries, not history buffs. On the other hand, Moscow has a surprisingly effective propaganda machine that does know history and does direct itself at the U.S.

Americans, for many reasons, are divided about the conflict in Ukraine. There are some who are wary of stopping the spread of Russian oppression because they're more afraid of the U.S.'s imperialist tendencies. Some of those Americans are sympathetic to Vladimir Putin and praise his conservative manliness. Some of those Americans identify positively with the Confederate Flag and see Russia as a cultural ally. Does anyone hear a dog whistle?

Here's a video of the bizarre matchup

Heads Up Climate Change Combatants: Global Warming Likely To Resume This Year

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Global WarmingWhy? El Nino. The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a weather phenomenon in which hot water near Indonesia sloshes over to the coast of Peru. When this happens it dramatically boosts the average temperature of the global atmosphere. The highest global average temperature recorded in the past 150 years or so occurred during the big El Nino of 1998. On June 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center issued a statement predicting that there is a 70 percent chance that an El Nino will emerge this summer, rising to an 80 percent chance that it will arrive by this fall and winter.

El Nino

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013 Physical Sciences report issued last September acknowledged that global average temperatures during the past 16 years have not been increasing as the climate computer models projected that they should have done. Nevertheless, the IPCC report states that the current temperature slow-down will soon end and declares:

It is more likely than not that internal climate variability in the near-term will enhance and not counteract the surface warming expected to arise from the increasing anthropogenic forcing.

What sort of internal climate variability? A big El Nino would certainly do. In other words, when the warm-up resumes, IPCC predicts it will soar.

By how much? The IPCC report projects:

The global mean surface temperature change for the period 2016-2035 relative to 1986-2005 will likely be in the range of 0.3°C to 0.7°C.

This implies increases of 0.15°C to 0.35°C per decade. Keep in mind that the satellite data finds that the globe since 1979 has been warming at a rate of 0.14°C per decade.

Some climatologists speculate that a big El Nino could "flip" the Pacific Decadal Oscillation from its current cool phase to a warm phase, thus ending the temperature "hiatus." If the El Nino happens later this year, it's safe to predict that planet warming will pale in comparison to the heated rhetoric exchanged between climate "alarmists" and "deniers."

One short-term good could come of an El Nino - lots of rain for California and other parts of the parched Southwest.

Eric Cantor to Step Down As House Majority Leader Following Primary Loss, Throwing GOP Leadership In

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Last night, Eric Cantor became the first House Majority Leader in history to lose a primary vote. Later today, he will announce that he is stepping down from his leadership role as of the end of July, according to The Washington Post's Fix blog. Cantor has been the House majority leader since 2011. 

What happens now? No one knows. Because Cantor's loss to challenger David Brat was so unexpected, there's no clear course.

It's a big scramble, not just to find a replacement majority leader, but to figure out who will step into the role of Speaker of the House when Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) inevitably steps down. Via National Journal:

A senior Republican leadership aide described the mood as "chaos for the leadership ranks."

"We're absolutely stunned. Honestly, we really can't believe it," said the aide, who likened it to the 2004 election defeat of Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was Senate minority leader at the time.

"Given the speculation Boehner himself may decide not to run again for speaker, the idea had been out there that Cantor would simply walk into the speakership," said the aide. "But now, who the hell would be the next speaker?"—particularly, the aide added, if Paul Ryan doesn't want it, or Rep. Tom Price of Georgia isn't interested.

Two possible successors for Cantor's job are the current Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), according to Politico. There are other potential candidates as well.  

In the bigger picture, what this probably means is that we're not only going to see a move to fill a gap in GOP leadership, but a public struggle to determine the direction and temperament of the Republican party going forward. This won't just be about finding somebody to do the job. It will be about what kind of party the GOP wants to be.

Inequality Thrives at Public Universities, Where Execs Live Like Kings

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Gordon Gee (Wikimedia Commons)The left loves to cite corporate America when lambasting the greed of the mega-wealthy 1 percent. But what about public universities, where top administrators make millions of dollars while students flounder in debt?

To its credit, The Nation recently spotlighted some of the most egregious examples, drawing on a new study by Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood for the Institute for Policy Studies that found student debt was worst at the 25 universities with the most staggeringly high salaries for chief executives.

There is no worse offender than the Ohio State University, which paid its president nearly $6 million per year between 2010 and 2012:

The "most unequal" public university in America, according to the report, is Ohio State. Between 2010 and 2012 it paid its president, Gordon Gee, a total of almost $6 million, while raising tuition and fees so much that student debt grew 23 percent faster than the national average.

The only people on campus worse off than students with loans are the part-time faculty members—and they too were worst off at schools with the highest paid presidents. OSU, while paying its president $5.9 million, focused its faculty hiring on low wage part-timers, hiring 498 contingent and part-time but only forty-five permanent faculty members.

At the same time that the regular faculty has been shrinking, the number of administrators has been growing. During the period when OSU hired forty-five permanent faculty members, it hired 670 new administrators. A similar pattern is found throughout American universities.

It's telling that so much of the money is going toward administrative jobs and pay. If universities were hiring more faculty, retaining excellent educators, and keeping class sizes low, then at least they might be able to argue that students were getting more for their buck. But no—students are borrowing hideous amounts of money so that campuses can vastly expand their administrative, non-teaching services.

The growth of the bureaucratic class at modern universities is not only expensive: It's actively disruptive to free speech and student autonomy. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argued in his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate that more administrators means more infringements on students' rights. In other words, a more cumbersome bureaucracy is expensive, serves little educational purpose, and has something to do with the sorry state of free expression on college campuses.

At the conclusion of their study, Erwin and Wood offer Sen. Elizabeth Warren's student loan bailout bill as one possible answer to campus inequality. That's problematic, however, since it would incentivize students to borrow more and universities to jack up prices.

But they do propose something that is at the very least intriguing:

State legislatures should establish spending ratios for their public universities. Based on our analysis, a ratio of spending on non-academic administration to scholarships could be reasonably set at 2 to 1.

Such a spending ratio may be a tad meddlesome, and more scholarship money is probably not a very good way to make college affordable.

This general approach may hold promise, however. At the end of the day, public universities are government agencies. Shouldn't taxpayers have some say over whether Gordon Gee and his ilk get to buy new yachts next year?

Hat tip: The College Fix

Cantor District Dem Candidate's Sorry Excuse for a Website Offers Lesson on the Two-Party System

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who?House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Republican primary in historically unprecedented fashion yesterday, and now David Brat, who defeated him, looks set to coast into victory in November. Virginia's 7th congressional district, after all, is heavily Republican. Cantor first won the seat in 2000, with 67 percent of the vote, and with 58 percent of the vote in 2012, the first election after the most recent redrawing of Virginia's congressional districts. It's not an insurmountable advantage for a non-Republican, unlike truly single-party districts, but it's also not one Jack Trammell, the Democrats' candidate (who, like Brat, is a professor at the local Randolph-Macon College) seems equipped to surmount.

As evidence, take a look at Trammell's sorry excuse for a website, which doesn't include so much as a talking point-laden issues page. There's probably been more interest in the 2014 race in the 7th congressional district, and in Trammell, today alone than there's been to-date. Yet nobody in the Democrats' nationwide apparatus though to give Trammell's website a crack makeover last night in anticipation of the new attention.

Democrats appear to have written off the district in a similar way to Cantor; they've assumed the result. It's typical of the two-party duopoly, which has carved out most of the country between it, leaving just a handful of "battleground" districts and states over which the two parties compete.

In that context, efforts by the Virginia Libertarian Party to compete across the state appear to be paying off. For the first time in its history the party will be fielding a candidate for eleven out of the twelve federal offices up for election in November (only the 5th congressional district doesn't have a candidate), led by the former gubernatorial candidate Rob Sarvis running for Senate. In the 7th district, the candidate is James Carr, whose website suggests Libertarians are taking that race more seriously than Democrats.

The Price of Pot: $45 per Eighth, Plus Your Second Amendment Rights

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KOMO, the ABC affiliate in Seattle, notes the ticklish situation confronting gun owners who might like to try some newly legal marijuana after Washington's state-licensed pot stores begin opening next month: If they do so, they lose their Second Amendment rights. Or so says the Gun Control Act of 1968, which makes it illegal for an "unlawful user" of "any controlled substance" to own a gun. KOMO describes the case of Bobbi Jo Floyd, a Richland resident who was denied a handgun carry permit a few months ago because she was known to be a medical marijuana user. Floyd's experience illustrates what happens when increasingly open cannabis consumption collides with a federal gun restriction that until now has rarely been enforced.

Under federal law, cannabis consumers who possess firearms or ammunition are committing a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Likewise anyone who sells or otherwise transfers a gun to a person he knows or has reasonable cause to believe is a cannabis consumer. There is also a penalty of up to a year in jail for falsely denying, on the form you have to fill out when you buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer, that you are "an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance."

Survey data indicate that something like 30 million Americans have consumed marijuana in the last year. Another 9 million or so have illegally consumed other controlled substances (which would include, e.g., taking a painkiller prescribed for a relative). Since people are not always candid when asked about illegal behavior, even in a confidential survey, the true numbers are probably somewhat higher. But conservatively we're talking about at least 15 percent of American adults who are officially disqualified from owning firearms because of the psychoactive substances they consume, with marijuana being by far the most popular.

Usually this rule has no practical effect. You lie on the form (or, in the case of a private transfer, do not fill out a form at all), and who's to know? But occasionally a gun owner's marijuana use (or a marijuana user's gun ownership) comes to the attention of a government official with the power to do something about it. That is what happened to Floyd, who in January applied to the Richland Police Department for a concealed pistol license (CPL). When she filled out the CPL application form, she said she was not "an unlawful user" of marijuana, since Washington has allowed cannabis consumption for medical purposes since 1998 (and for recreational purposes since 2012).

According to a 2011 directive from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), that was the wrong answer. In a letter to federally licensed firearm dealers, Arthur Herbert, the ATF's assistant director for enforcement programs and services, explained that "any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her State has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance." 

Still, as long as no one knew that Floyd was a cannabis consumer, that fact would not have stopped her from obtaining a CPL. But someone did know. KOMO reports that a police department employee recognized Floyd, "an outspoken proponent of medical marijuana," and asked her to include a copy of her medical authorization with her application. A couple of weeks later, Floyd received a notice that her application had been rejected. Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner explained in a letter that under federal law Floyd is not even allowed to own a gun, let alone carry one in public. In effect, since it was Floyd's activisim that tipped off the police, she lost her Second Amendment rights because she exercised her First Amendment rights. "I was incredibly angry because I was being honest," Floyd tells KOMO. "I had done nothing wrong."

Floyd has been talking to attorneys about challenging Skinner's decision in court. "I'm a Republican," she says, "and I believe in my guns." Medical marijuana patients in neighboring Oregon who were denied carry permits because of their cannabis consumption successfully pursued such a case all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, which in 2011 ruled that the Gun Control Act does not pre-empt the state law that establishes the requirements for a permit. Those criteria do not include abstaining from marijuana, which Oregon recognizes as a medicine. In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Jackson County Sheriff Michael Winters' appeal of that decision.

Unlike those Oregon patients, Floyd does not seem to have a very strong basis for challenging the rejection of her CPL application under state law. Washington, like Oregon, is a "shall issue" state, meaning gun owners can obtain carry permits as long as they meet certain objective criteria. But Washington's law, unlike Oregon's, disqualifies any applicant who is "prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law." Hence the Washington State Department of Licensing lists marijuana use in the last year as grounds for rejecting an application.

What about a Second Amendment challenge? As Brian Doherty reported here a few months ago, a Nevada medical marijuana patient, Rowan Wilson, has so far been unsuccessful in arguing that the ban on gun ownership by cannabis consumers violates the Second Amendment. A federal judge rejected that argument in March, noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Washington as well as Nevada, upheld that provision of the Gun Control Act in the 2011 case U.S. v. Dugan. Wilson's lawyer, who intends to appeal, argues that Dugan was weakly reasoned and should be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, Floyd and every other gun-owning cannabis consumer remain felons in the eyes of the federal government. That fact could be a source of serious mischief if Barack Obama or his successor adopts a more confrontational approach to state laws allowing medical or recreational use of marijuana. Even without a shift in federal policy, misguided state officials may force patients to choose between their medicine and their Second Amendment rights, as happened in Illinois this year before a public outcry forced a reversal. In that case, gun rights advocates united with drug policy refomers to oppose a requirement that medical marijuana patients turn in their guns. We will need more such alliances to make sure that the right to keep and bear arms does not disappear in a puff of pot smoke.

Eric Cantor Loss: One Down, 200 More Small-Government Fakers to Go

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Cantor exemplifies what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)just denounced as a “Chamber of Commerce”-style GOP legislator, “the same-old, same-old,” standard-issue Republican who has brought the party to a historically low level of self-identification among voters.

Cantor was what passes for a small-government conservative. Which is to say that Cantor was in favor of shrinking the size and scope and government…except for the endless list of exceptions that allowed him to help grow federal spending by more than 50 percent in real terms, and regulatory spending by even more, during the Bush years.

That's from a new Daily Beast column by me. I don't think it's at all clear whether Eric Cantor's primary loss will mean anything in the long run, but I'm always happy to see politicians of his stripe get the heave-ho.

I think it’s folly to talk about Cantor’s loss as meaning more than the obvious: He perfectly represented the modal Republican in that he talked about limiting government while actively growing its reach in virtually every way. That is a supremely unattractive character to be in contemporary American politics, and it helps explain why Gallup finds just 25 percent of Americans identify as Republicans (the news isn’t rosy for Democrats, either, according to Gallup: Just 31 percent of Americans identify with that centuries-old brand). 

Whole thing here.

Ralph Nader on the Right-Left Alliance to Crush Cronyism, Obama's "Total Support" for War and Empire

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Ralph Nader talks with Nick Gillespie about his new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, whether he spoiled the 2000 election, whether his old nemesis GM should have been bailed out, and much more.

Click above to watch or click below for full transcript, downloadable versions, and other resources.

View this article.

Attn, New York Reasonoids: Check out Sidewalk Traffic, a Comedy by Anthony L. Fisher

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Former Reason TV producer (and current Independents producer) Anthony L. Fisher is premiering his romantic comedy film Sidewalk Traffic at the Lower East Side Film Festival in Manhattan on June 18. Here's the capsule summary of the movie:

When 30 year-old filmmaker Declan is squeezed out of a promotion, he shocks everyone by devoting himself as a stay at home dad. As he learns his new role and works to resurrect his dreams, he is forced to face his demons --- including the still lingering fallout of his best friend's suicide.

For info on the film, check out its Facebook page.

For info on the festival:

SIDEWALK TRAFFIC- U.S. Premiere
Lower East Side Film Festival
Wed June 18, 9p
Sunshine Cinemas
143 E Houston St. New York, NY 10002

The LES Film Fest is a young, dynamic and truly indie fest, with a judging panel headed this year by Dana Brunetti, producer of House of CardsThe Social Network and Kevin Spacey's producing partner at Trigger Street Productions. Other judges include Tony-award winning actor Denis O'Hare, Vanity Fair digital editor Chris Rovzar, and (great news for our music-infused film) Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Marky Ramone! 

Tickets can be purchased here.

The LES Film Festival Audience Award is determined by Twitter votes, so if you're on Twitter and so inclined, be sure to include "@SidewalkTraffic @lesfilmfestival #bestoflesff" in your tweet!

Bill Lets Underage Brewers Taste Wine, But They Have To Spit It Out

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BacchusUnderage California viticulture students: Your day of freedom is coming.

The state Assembly recently approved a bill that would allow brewery students at public universities to taste the fruits of their labors, even if they haven't yet turned 21.

The only catch? Students can't drink the wine. They are required to sample and spit, according to Campus Reform:

University professors will be tasked with monitoring underage students and handling any problems that could arise, Adrian Lopez, state governmental relations director at University of California - Davis (UC Davis) said.

“This bill is so students can taste the product they’re making in order to develop their sensory skills early on and become the best winemakers and the best brewers,” Lopez told Campus Reform in an interview.

...Last month, the bill passed on the assembly floor with 73 votes in favor and only two opposing. Lopez said he remains “cautiously optimistic” that the bill will continue to keep its momentum as it’s slated to hit California’s senate on June 24.

“We have a lot of limitations in place so folks understand it’s not an underage consumption bill,” Lopez said. “It’s for a small amount of students in a major program.”

Besides having to spit out anything they taste, students will be monitored by a professor (who must be over the age of 21) and must be enrolled in an accredited viticulture program at a public university.

It may be gross, and it may be slight, but progress is progress.

Free-Market Brat Beats on Cantor, VA Gets FBI Investigation, Iraqi Cities Fall: P.M. Links

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Follow Reason and Reason 24/7 on Twitter, and like us on Facebook. You can also get the top stories mailed to you—sign up here.

De Blasio Is Busting Just As Many Pot Smokers As Bloomberg Did

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A month ago I noted that, despite a big drop in stop-and-frisk encounters during the first three months of Bill de Blasio's tenure as mayor of New York City, low-level pot busts were down just 8.5 percent compared to the first quarter of 2013. Another month of data makes De Blasio and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, look even worse on this front. According to the latest numbers from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project (MARP), New York cops busted an average of 80 pot smokers a day during the first four months of this year, slightly higher than the daily average of 78 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly during the same period of last year. Now as then, the arrestees are overwhelmingly (86 percent) black or Latino, overwhelmingly (79 percent) between the ages of 16 and 34, and overhelmingly (73 percent) first-time offenders. MARP concludes that "marijuana arrest patterns in the first four months of 2014 under de Blasio and Bratton are indistinguishable from those of their predecessors in 2013."

In 2013 there were a total of 28,644 minor possession arrests, down 43 percent from the peak of 50,484 in 2011 but still above the historical norm. Given De Blasio's rhetoric about the "two New Yorks" and his criticism of racially skewed law enforcement, his supporters could be forgiven for expecting that downward trend to continue. Instead it seems to be stalling, which is especially disturbing given that New York supposedly decriminalized marijuana possession way back in 1977. Since then possession of up to 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce) has been a citable offense unless the pot is publicly displayed, which is a misdemeanor. It is hard to believe that cops are catching 80 people a day brazenly smoking pot right in front of them. It seems likely that, as in the past, at least some of these busts occur after marijuana is brought into public view through police intervention, which means they are legally invalid. In any case, cops surely have better things to do than bust pot smokers.

Two years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended decriminalizing public display of marijuana to address "gaping racial disparities" and "save thousands of New Yorkers, particularly minority youth, from the unnecessary and life-altering trauma of a criminal arrest" while avoiding "countless man-hours wasted" on "what is clearly only a minor offense." He reiterated his support for that reform in his 2013 State of the State address. But a year later, after De Blasio was elected, Cuomo decided such legislation was no longer necessary. "It's not timely in the way it was last year," he said in January. Evidently subjecting minority youth to "the unnecessary and life-altering trauma of a criminal arrest" is OK as long as a Democrat does it.

Brian Doherty on David Brat, Eric Cantor, Libertarians, and Republicans

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Yesterday's primary defeat of crony capitalist House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by an unknown economics professor, David Brat, with a professed admiration for free markets, a yen for Ayn Rand, and a campaign manager who identifies himself as an "Austrian Economics geek," raises anew a constant dilemma. As Senior Editor Brian Doherty explains, that dilemma is this: How libertarian can a libertarian be in electoral politics, and is the Republican Party where a "serious" libertarian must go if he wants to be involved in such politics?

View this article.

Barack Obama Attached Himself to Premiere of Cosmos, Says Neil de Grasse Tyson

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a more enthusiastic consentEarlier this year President Obama introduced the first episode of Cosmos, a Fox sequel/remake of the 1980 Carl Sagan PBS mini-series of the same name, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Whose idea was it to get the president involved? Tyson explains in an interview at Grantland's Hollywood Prospectus:

What was the process of getting Obama to introduce the show in the first episode?

That was their choice. We didn't ask them. We didn't have anything to say about it. They asked us, "Do you mind if we intro your show?" Can't say no to the president. So he did. He may have been riding the very high media attention that Cosmos had been getting on the ramp-up. Because it was airing in prime time on a network —

It was a good look for him.

Right. Because it was airing in prime time on a network, reporters that normally covered television entertainment and not television documentaries were tasked with covering Cosmos. It was on their beat, the Fox lineup on a Sunday night. So the media attention ended up reaching not only the traditional people that would talk about a documentary, but entertainment reporters. The geek blogosphere was abuzz, and also people who were curious, fans of the original series, and were curious what would happen for it being on Fox. What does it mean that Seth MacFarlane, who's best known for his fart jokes — what does it mean that he's executive producing? There were a lot of people who had some anxieties about that and were eager to learn what would unfold.

That same week, by the way, Obama — the White House — released its budget, which included a reduction in the science spending in NASA. So if you look at it politically, rather than gesturally, it's easy to think of that as a way for him to try to gain points back in the science community, immediately after dropping the science budget for NASA.

Can't say no to the president, even when he's injecting himself into something to score political points. A pro-tip for Tyson: Yes, you can. I imagine it'll become easier for many celebrities to say no when a Republican takes the White House again.

Via the Twitter feed of Instapundit

Activists Lobbying for Federal Department of Photoshop Fails

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Today on Capitol Hill, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) met with advocates calling for greater federal oversight of Photoshop use. Led by ad-man turned advocate Seth Matlins, the group presented the Congresswomen with a 25,000-signature Change.org petition to pass an act regulating digitally altered images in advertising. 

The "Truth in Advertising Act"—crafted by Matlins, the Eating Disorders Coalition, and Brave Girls Alliance—was introduced by Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Capps in March. The legislation directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to "develop a regulatory framework for ads that materially change the faces and bodies of the people in them, in order to reduce the damage this type of advertising does to our children."

According to a Change.org press release (emphasis mine), "excessive Photoshop use...contributes to one of the most significant public health crisis (sic) in the US, adding to emotional, mental and physical health consequences including eating disorders, which affects children and teen girls disproportionately." (For the record, "Photoshop," like Kleenex or Xerox before it, has become something of a catch-all term for any digital image alteration.) Matlins called Photoshopped ads "weapons of mass perfection." He insists that "we're not talking about regulating that (sic) making a blue sky bluer, or photoshopping away a fly-away hair. We're talking about ads that change the shape, size, proportion, color, and enhance or remove the features of the people in them."

That is the kind of thing people actually want our federal government determining. How many fly-away hairs can be disappeared before it's "seriously changing" an image? How many pixels can Miranda Kerr's waist be taken in by? How many pores can be smoothed off of Emma Stone's face without breaking the law?

It's ludicrous. And possibly unconstitutional. Advertising is, after all, protected First Amendment speech. Under a landmark Supreme Court case on advertising—Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York—the government can only restrict non-deceptive commercial speech when doing so "directly advances" a substantial state interest. I don't think the FTC has a substantial interest in becoming self-esteem-booster-in-chief. 

Of course, the FTC can step in when advertising is deceptive or misleading. Matlin and his ilk are argue that Photoshopping does count as deception. It's a stretch. And let's not forget that advertising—especially the kind of high-fashion advertising frequently reliant on Photoshp—can also be considered artistic expression. A form of artistic expression, in fact, to which "seriously changing" images is central.

As an alum of women's blogs, I've witnessed and covered my fair share of "Photoshop fails"—waists smaller than a model's neck, crotches cropped to create extra thigh gap. But here's the thing: The blogosphere does a pretty good job of policing this on its own. After a few years of a familiar cycle—extreme digital hack job, blogger complaints, segment on Good Morning America, action from admaker, repeat—more and more companies have been backing off extreme Photoshopping. In other words: The media and the market have got this one, thanks. 

Woman Dies in Jail Because She Failed to Pay a Fine—For Her Child's Truancy From School

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Some monstrous policy out of Pennsylvania, from Associated Press via the Pottstown Mercury News, a land where there is no such thing as debtors prison for the poor unless that debt is to the government, that institution that only monsters question because after all it's there to help the poor:

Hundreds of parents, some impoverished and overwhelmed, have been jailed in Pennsylvania for failing to pay court fines that arise from truancy hearings after their children skip school, creating what some call a "debtor's prison" for people like Eileen DiNino.

DiNino, 55, of Reading, was found dead in a jail cell Saturday morning, hours after she surrendered to serve a 48-hour sentence.

She had racked up $2,000 in fines, fees and court costs since 1999 as the Reading School District tried to keep her children in class, most recently at a vocational high school.

Died alone in prison. Over truancy.

More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — where Reading is the county seat—over truancy fines since 2000, more than two-thirds of them women, the newspaper reported....

Language barriers can also be an issue for letters and phone calls between the parents and school, given that the vast majority of the city and school population is Hispanic, Guida said.

...the fines handed down by judges were typically small, perhaps $20. The debt adds up, he said, over court costs and fees. In one case alone involving DiNino, her bill included a laundry list of routine fees: $8 for a "judicial computer project"; $60 for Berks constables; $40 for "summary costs" for several court offices; and $10 for postage.

As I wrote about back in January in "Petty Law Enforcement vs. the Poor" and again last month, focusing specifically on the whole "multiplying court fees" matter that helped Ms. DiNino die in a cell, some of the pettiest fines when it comes to traffic and the like can really end up screwing up citizens lives in ways far more serious than the initial offense. (Not to mention the stickier question of the ethical status of an entity that makes sure it gets its pound of flesh from any debtor by literally locking them up as punishment for not paying off.)

It's not a topic that political scientists and sociologists have gathered a lot of data on, as near as I've been able to tell, but let's add this set of anecdotes from Pennsylvania to "the state will behave with monstrous lack of mercy to the least well-off among us."

Obama's New Student Debt Plan Will Exacerbate America's Widening Skills Gap

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obama signing documentsWorkers in the skilled trades, such as electricians, welders, and machinists were the hardest for employers to find from 2010 to 2012 and the second hardest in 2014, according to surveys by the human resources consulting firm ManpowerGroup. This problem is likely to continue because a majority of the workers in these professions currently are 45 or older.

Genevieve Stevens, an administrator for Houston Community College at Central College, articulated how we got into this predicament and offered a way out of it when she spoke to Houston Chronicle:

"For two or three generations, the focus has been to go to college, get a degree and in doing so you will ensure a brighter future with more access to employment. We started focusing on academic instruction, but left behind the notion of work-force education. However, in a two-year institution that costs less, the average work-force student can come out of that program with skills to gain immediate employment."

But President Barack Obama's new plan to decrease student debt will only make the problem worse since there is a deficit of workers in skilled trades, but a surplus of people with college degrees. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute reported last week that a third of graduates with a bachelor's degree are in jobs that don't require the credential. Underemployment is even worse for people with graduate degrees. He writes: 

"In the name of helping them, federal politicians, and many other people, massively oversell higher education to the detriment of students." 

Government influence on higher education has already unbalanced the supply and demand of the labor market enough. Obama's plan to try and make college more accessible will only serve to exacerbate this problem and further widen the skills gap that currently exists in the job market. 

Reason TV spoke with Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe about the skills gap:

Did Federal Trucking Regulations Influence Tracy Morgan's Car Crash?

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Tracy Morgan

Tracy Morgan's Saturday limo crash is putting a spotlight on federal trucking regulations mandating nap times for long haul drivers. Police say the Walmart truck driver who plowed into the back of the funnyman's limo had not slept in 24 hours.

While it may seem like forcing fatigued drivers to take breaks would help keep them from dozing off at the wheel, federal regulations that went into effect about a year ago cause time-and-money-maximizing drivers to take breaks when they may not need them and then drive when they're tired. 

Drivers all run on different sleep schedules, some of which can make adherence to the rules trickier and more costly. For example, if a driver's required 34-hour rest period ends in the middle of the afternoon, he or she must wait even longer to restart their workweek because the rest period did not include two consecutive nights as the regulations require. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently passed an amendment that would eliminate this rule. 

Both opponents and proponents of the amendment are using the attention surrounding the Tracy Morgan crash to advocate for their positions. 

The executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association told NBC News:

If the regulations are so strict that a driver can't stop and take a break or take a nap when they need to, then I don't know how you can conclude anything other than the regulations have made highways less safe.

The Federal Motor Carrying Safety Administration (FMCSA) opposes the amendment and says the regulations increase safety and reduce crashes caused by fatigued drivers. The Obama administration opposes the amendment as well. 

But the American Trucking Associations disagrees. The group's president released a statement addressing Morgan's crash in which he said the rules mess with a driver's normal sleep pattern and put more trucks on the road during riskier daylight hours. The statement also said that no federal regulation can dictate what a driver does during their time off, but the group strongly believes that drivers should rest when they're not working.

The amendment to ax the rule will now go to the Senate floor for a vote

How Pot Went Legit: Livestream with Weed Land author Peter Hecht Tonight at 7PT/10ET

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In the early morning of September 5, 2002, heavily armed Drug Enforcement Administration agents descended on a marijuana garden that served as a medicinal and spiritual refuge for the sick and dying. The controversial raid on the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana kicks off journalist Peter Hecht's new book Weed Land: Inside America's Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit, which chronicles a transformative time in American marijuana policy. 

Pulitzer Prize winner Dale Maharidge calls Weed Land “essential reading for anyone who is a fan of California’s most lucrative agricultural product.”

Tune in tonight for a live discussion of this exciting new book, which examines the latest clinical studies on the medical benefits of cannabis, the exploding marijuana marketplace, and the consequences of a federal crackdown on America’s largest marijuana economy. The interview will stream live from our Los Angeles studio on Reason TV on Wednesday, June 11 at 7PT/10ET. The video will be available below and on the Reason TV YouTube channel. 

Bitcoin: Now Usable for Hotel Bookings on Big Travel Site Expedia

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As Bitcoin's prices rise again, the always-on-the-verge-of-death yet very resilient stateless, non-inflationary crypto-currency continues to find new acceptance.

The latest, from The Wall Street Journal:

Expedia, the big online travel site, announced on Wednesday it will begin accepting bitcoin for hotel bookings through its website, becoming the first major travel-agency to take the digital currency. If the reception is good, the company said it expects to bring bitcoin to its other service lines as well.

“This is one of those ideas that seemed to have sprung from three different places all at once,” said Michael Gulmann, Expedia’s vice president of global product, explaining how the company arrived at the decision. The company’s engineers were starting to think about bitcoin, and the company’s product and business developers were as well, he explained. They also were hearing from customers.

The company is starting with hotels essentially as a test of the system, he explained. “We want to start at a reasonable, small place,” he said, and see if it will be feasible to expand it to other parts of the business. If the trial works well, and if customer support is there, he expects the company will start taking bitcoin for other bookings as well. “Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” he said.

Expedia, which is using Coinbase for bitcoin processing, won’t hold the digital currency it receives, but that’s not “a statement on bitcoin, pro or con,” Mr. Gulmann explained. Rather, Coinbase’s default setting is for a daily settlement back into U.S. dollars.

My article from last year, long before the huge rally in prices, on how the U.S. government can try to hobble but cannot stop Bitcoin.

Tonight on The Independents: Red Meat Wednesday, With Ron Paul, Justin Amash, Matt Kibbe, C

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Hi, Ron Paul! |||Do you love and/or hate to see me sitting in Kennedy's hosting chair? Either way, you'll be motivated to watch tonight's episode of The Independents (Fox Business Network, 9 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. PT, repeats three hours later). Filling in for the big-earrings gal will be Hot Air/Townhall media personality Mary Katharine Ham, who will end the show with a prom-banning story YOU WON'T BELIEVE. Still, the real hooks lie elsewhere.

As befits tradition, Red Meat Wednesday is back with a KABOOM! (Don't ask how red meat explodes, just work with me.) Kicking off the show is the right honorable libertarian gentleman Ron Paul, who will likely talk about how much he misses Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va., though not for long), and also what we've learned from today's Bowe Bergdahl congressional hearings with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Batting second is Yahoo News political reporter Chris Moody, who will hopefully unravel the mystery of who is David Brat, and why exactly did he win. Cleanup is Ron Paul 2.0 Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who knows a thing or two about running primary elections against the Chamber of Commerce. And rounding out the Cantor-Commentary is FreedomWorks President/CEO Matt Kibbe, who will exclusively reveal whether he had to Google how to pronounce Brat's name correctly last night.

Party Panel tonight is Red Eye co-host Andy Levy and NASCAR-loving Fox News correspondent Dagen McDowell, who will talk about Hillary Clinton's latest Benghazi comments, the NSA's we’re-too-big-to-comply-with-court-orders defense, plus what long lines of immigrant children near the border tell us about American politics in 2014.

Follow The Independents on Facebook at facebook.com/IndependentsFBN, follow on Twitter @ independentsFBN, tweet during the show & we’ll use the best of ‘em. Click on this page for more video of past segments.