Now, Even Russia Has Drone-Delivered Pizza. Get With It, USA!

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The Cold War is heating back up and the Russians have an edge on The Land of the Free in one critical arena: drone-delivered pizza.

The Russian Federation – whether its restricting speech online, making work visas more difficult to obtain, or muscling ethnic minorities in the recently snatched Crimean peninsula – is not exactly known for its commitment to limited government. And yet, The Moscow Times reported yesterday on an activity that the Ivan Dragos of the world get to enjoy while the Rocky Balboas do not:

A pizzeria in the Komi republic's capital city of Syktyvkar has launched a helicopter drone-delivery service.

DoDo Pizza's first unmanned delivery was made on Saturday to much applause from witnesses in the city's main square. …

The drone was able to complete its task in just half an hour, and the pizzeria's owners plan to make drone deliveries a regular practice.

This is the Sputnik of 2014, people.

Why is it that Russians (and others worldwide) can get a quintessentially American dish delivered by an unmanned aerial vehicle, but Americans cannot? Regulations courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA is tasked with rolling out a set of regulations for commercial drone use in the U.S. by 2015, but in the meantime, they've left businesses in a sort of legal limbo. The agency has this year grounded operations of a beer delivery service, a flower delivery service, and even a volunteer search-and-rescue organization, because they don't conform to FAA rules (which aren't necessary legally binding). The agency made some progress earlier this month by allowing BP to become the first fully approved commercial drone operator, but that doesn't exactly deserve applause. Apparently, it took over a year to work that deal out, and it shows the FAA is more interested in picking winners and losers than simply allowing any business to adopt drone technology and become more cost effective for consumers. 

Of couse, you just might get pepper-sprayed by a drone in America. Read Scott Shackford's coverage of that here.

Journalists and Filmmakers: Win Big $$ at the Reason Media Awards!

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ReasonAttention writers and filmmakers of distinction! Enter to win $$ at the 2014 Reason Media Awards!

  • The Bastiat Prize for Journalism  honors writers from around the globe who explain the importance of freedom with originality, wit, and eloquence.
  • The Reason Video Prize honors short-form video and film that explores, investigates, or enriches our appreciation of individual rights, limited government, and the free market.

First place for each prize is $10,000. The deadline to enter is July 31, 2014.

Find out more and enter at www.reasonmediaawards.com

Vid: How Pot Went Legit - Q&A with Weed Land author Peter Hecht

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"When you go from a product that has been illegal for generations and you legalize it—in this case, under the medical marijuana laws—you need rules and a framework...and California never had that. And it left not only the state vulnerable, but these individual businesses vulnerable to prosecution," says Peter Hecht, journalist and author of the book Weed Land: Inside America's Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller interviews Hecht at our Los Angeles studio for an internet livestream on Reason TV's YouTube Channel on Wednesday, June 11 at 7pm. Hecht discusses the economic, political, and social journey California has taken in the legalization of medical marijuana and compares its relatively unregulated and sometimes chaotic medical marijuana market to markets in other states, such as Washington and Colorado.

Interview by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Alexander Manning and Carlos Gutierrez. Edited by Carlos Gutierrez. Music by The Custodian of Records. Run time: 37 min.

Click the link below for downloadable versions of this video, and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel for daily content like this.

View this article.

'Greenhouse' Plug-In Lets You See Where Politicians Get Their Money

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The Internet has birthed a new useful tool to keep tabs on politicians. It's a browser plug-in called "Greenhouse" and it lets users easily access information on where our public servants get their campaign donations.

For example, if you were reading recent news about Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her views on Obamacare, simply hovering a mouse over her name would bring up a political baseball card of sorts. Greenhouse lists the top 10 industries from which a politician receives money, and Pelosi's number one comes from health professionals. They gave her slightly over $200,000 in 2012 (see image right).

The software, which launched early in June for browsers Safari and Google Chrome and just last week for Firefox, also highlights what percentage of a politician's funds come from presumably grassroots supporters, those who make donations of $200 or less. For Pelosi, that comes out to a mere 4.8 percent.

Greenhouse's creator, Nicholas Rubin, explains on his website that "even though I am only 16 years old, not quite old enough to vote, I am old enough to know that our political system desperately needs fixing. I hope that this tool is one step in that direction."

Rubin says the name of his plug-in comes from a desire for transparency, like the glass walls of a greenhouse. One may also infer something about politicians and hot gas as well, but he doesn't explicitly make that point. The young coder gives some insight into his own political philosophy and mission:

The influence of money on our government isn't a partisan issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, we should all want a political system that is independent of the influence of big money and not dependent on endless cycles of fundraising from special interests. The United States of America was founded to serve individuals, not big interests or big industries. Yet every year we seem to move farther and farther away from our Founders' vision.

Technology blog Engadget critiques the fact that the Rubin's data is a few years old. He replied that "the information in the popup is from the last full election cycle (ending in 2012) because it is most complete data available." Rubin pulls his information from the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets website, which tracks lobbying and campaign contributions, and "plan[s] to update the data in the popup itself later in this election cycle as 2014 contributions are more complete." 

Obamacare Covers the Uninsured (and Some Who Weren’t)

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The headline news from last week’s Kaiser Family Foundation survey of people who enrolled in individual market health insurance was that more than half—57 percent—of those enrolled in coverage through Obamacare’s exchanges were previously uninsured.

That’s a marked improvement over previous outside surveys from McKinsey and RAND, which found that 24 percent and 36 percent of Obamacare-era enrollees were previously uninsured. The surveys were taken at different times, and they used different questions and different methodologies, which almost certainly accounts for some of the variation. But because the Kaiser report is the most recent, and because it relies on a randomized survey sample, it’s likely to be taken as the closest thing we have to a canonical number, at least for now.

Kaiser estimate represents a significant improvement over the previous estimates produced by McKinsey and RAND, and in that sense it represents good news for the health law’s supporters. Certainly, they will now be able to say that a majority of the people covered through the law’s exchanges were previously uninsured.

But even still, the survey results suggest the potential limitations of Obamacare’s coverage scheme.It’s not a precise instrument: More than 40 percent of exchange enrollees were already insured, suggesting that while Obamacare is expanding coverage to the uninsured, it’s also resulting in a fair amount of subsidized coverage going to people who already had coverage (the vast majority of exchange beneficiaries got subsidies).

Digging a bit deeper into the survey also hints at the difficulty in measuring who, exactly, counts as previously uninsured. If someone had health insurance up until a month prior to getting new coverage under the law, should that person count as uninsured? Probably not. What about six months before? Or a year before? These questions are legitimately difficult to answer.

Kaiser’s survey finds that the majority of previously uninsured lacked coverage for two years, and that 45 percent reported not having coverage for five years. Which means that more than half of the previously uninsured were covered at some relatively recent point.

Now, many of those people clearly were having difficulty getting coverage for some reason—perhaps as a ripple effect of the recession, perhaps because of some other factor. But many of them appear not to be completely uninsurable. These are not people who couldn’t get insurance under any circumstance. They’re people who didn’t have it for the last several years.  

Obamacare’s supporters would no doubt say that the law was designed to help those people just as much as it was designed to help those who never had coverage at all. That’s an entirely reasonable position. But when we talk about Obamacare’s coverage effects, it’s important to be clear about who is being covered: a sizable number of people who were already insured, as well as people who were both eligible for coverage and covered at one point, but had lost their coverage.

Tax Carbon or Innovate to Save the Climate?

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NoCarbonEnergyIn Sunday's New York Times Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Jr. published an op-ed advocating the adoption of a carbon tax as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and stimulate low-carbon and no-carbon energy production technology innovations. Paulson has joined with former New York City major Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund mogul, now climate warrior, Tom Steyer to found the Risky Business Project that aims to quantify the costs of future climate change to the economy. Their report will be issued later this week. In his op-ed Paulson argues:

I’m a businessman, not a climatologist. But I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with climate scientists and economists who have devoted their careers to this issue. There is virtually no debate among them that the planet is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible...

We need to craft national policy that uses market forces to provide incentives for the technological advances required to address climate change. As I’ve said, we can do this by placing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Many respected economists, of all ideological persuasions, support this approach. We can debate the appropriate pricing and policy design and how to use the money generated. But a price on carbon would change the behavior of both individuals and businesses. At the same time, all fossil fuel — and renewable energy — subsidies should be phased out. Renewable energy can outcompete dirty fuels once pollution costs are accounted for.

But will a carbon tax actually stimulate the invention of new no-carbon energy technologies? Theory suggests yes, but high gasoline taxes in Europe that are nearly the equivalent of a $500 per ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions have not led to the invention of cars powered by electricity generated by nuclear power plants and solar panels.

A June 13 op-ed, "Carbon Pricing Won't Solve Climate Change. Innovation Will," in the Christian Science Monitor by analysts at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation argue that directly subsidizing research and development aiming to make no-carbon energy technologies cheaper than fossil fuels is a better way to go. Why? First, because a carbon tax that would be sufficiently high to encourage no-carbon energy R&D is politically infeasible. Consequently, they argue:

The primary goal of both national and international climate policy should be to make the unsubsidized cost of clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels so that all countries deploy clean energy because it makes economic sense. This means a fundamental focus on innovation, including substantially more public investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D), and reforms of clean energy deployment policies so that subsidies incentivize the development of better technologies. International climate negotiations should also address innovation by offering high-income and emerging economies the option to gradually increase clean energy RD&D investment as a complement to an emissions reduction target. To start, a modest 0.065 percent target would increase global investment by $26 billion per year.

Points in favor of R&D subsidies: (1) they would be much cheaper for consumers and producers than imposing a broad carbon tax, and (2) if they do end up producing cheaper-than-fossil-fuel energy production technologies, the process of imposing costs on people would be replaced with one in which people enjoy benefits instead.

Sen. Rand Paul: "The war on drugs has had a racial outcome...and I want to try to fix it."

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said that a new voting rights bill he's working on would help him reach out to new demographics, especially minorities. Paul plans to introduce a bill that would restore the vote for people convicted of minor drug offenses. 

"Three out of four people in prison are black or brown for nonviolent drug use. However, when you do surveys, white kids are doing drugs at an equal rate, and they are a much bigger part of the population. So, why are the prisons full of black and brown kids? It is easier to arrest them. It is easier to convict them. They don't get as good of attorneys," Paul said.

Read the full article here.

Debating the Death Penalty

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The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, recently invited me to debate William Tucker about the death penalty. Our point/counterpoint, which appeared in the July/August Spectator, is now online. Here's how my side of the dispute begins:

Old school.The typical conservative is well informed about the careless errors routinely made by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and city hall. If he's a policy wonk, he may have bookmarked the Office of Management and Budget's online list of federal programs that manage to issue more than $750 million in mistaken payments each year. He understands the incentives that can make an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling to acknowledge, let alone correct, its mistakes. He doesn't trust the government to manage anything properly, even the things he thinks it should be managing.

Except, apparently, the minor matter of who gets to live or die. Bring up the death penalty, and many conservatives will suddenly exhibit enough faith in government competence to keep the Center for American Progress afloat for a year. Yet the system that kills convicts is riddled with errors.

To read the rest, follow the link.

Tucker, meanwhile, points out that murder rates rose after the death penalty was abolished nationwide and fell after "states started executing people in significant numbers in the 1990s." But states that do not have the death penalty have also seen murder rates decline in the same period—indeed, they've enjoyed a somewhat greater decline—so I'm not convinced he's found the reason for the rise and fall.

He also offers an argument about incentives:

It's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."For a criminal pulling off a holdup—or a rapist, or a "surprised" burglar caught by a homeowner—there's a very simple logic at work. The victims of your crimes are also the principal witnesses. They will call the police the minute you depart. They can identify you. They will probably testify at your trial. There's a very simple way to prevent all this: kill them.

The purpose of the death penalty is to draw a bright line between a felony and felony murder. If the penalty for rape or robbery is jail time, and for murder is more jail time after that, there isn't a huge incentive to prevent you from pulling the trigger.

I didn't mention it in my Spectator piece, but I have invoked that same bright line elsewhere to show why, if there is a death penalty, it should not apply to any crime less serious than murder. If a criminal can be executed for, say, kidnapping, he may well decide that he might as well kill people to evade capture, since arrest already means a strong possibility of being put to death. But while that bright line makes sense as an argument against a particularly poor way of applying the death penalty, I don't think it works as well as an argument for the death penalty itself. The same incentive, after all, applies to a murderer: He might decide to kill more people to evade capture too.

At any rate, you can read both Tucker's full argument and mine here, and then you can join the debate yourselves in the comments.

Walmart Takes Red Pen to Typical NY Times Wage Gap Column

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Prices so low they'll drive progressives insane!Timothy Egan over at the New York Times opined in a poorly argued, talking-points-laden screed about how terrible Walmart is. Typically this would be dog-bites-man stuff. It contains stupid sentences like this one: "It's a sad day when we have to look to corporations for education, health care and basic ways to boost the middle class," as though the money the government grabs to attempt to (extremely poorly) manage these things would exist at all were it not for the marketplace that created corporations in the first place (and as if the extremely poor government management isn't what is driving up prices of health care and education as well).

But something different happened this time, causing a bit of viral buzz in conservative-libertarian circles. Walmart took a red pen to Egan's column and posted it on their site, with corrections. In response to Egan calling Walmart a drain to taxpayers, they argue they're the biggest taxpayer in the country. In response to him claiming the company forces employees onto public assistance, they point out that they are responsible for moving employees off public assistance. They even note that one piece of evidence of Walmart's bad behavior was debunked by Politifact. In response to a simplistic back-of-the-napkin mathematical claim by a Fortune writer that Walmart could increase the wages by all their employees by 50 percent with no consequences, Walmart suggests checking out the description of the company from a gentleman named Jason Furman.

Read the whole thing here. (Tip to Walmart's public relations folks: If you want people clicking on links, actually make them links, not images of site addresses that can't even be copied or pasted.)

Walter Olson over at the Cato Institute noted Furman is President Barack Obama's current chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and what he had to say about Walmart:

Wal-Mart's low prices help to increase real wages for the 120 million Americans employed in other sectors of the economy. And the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector…

[T]o the degree the anti-Wal-Mart campaign slows or halts the spread of Wal-Mart to new areas, it will lead to higher prices that disproportionately harm lower-income families…

By acting in the interests of its shareholders, Wal-Mart has innovated and expanded competition, resulting in huge benefits for the American middle class and even proportionately larger benefits for moderate-income Americans.

As usual, during this poorly argued babble about the "income gap," what is left out is how much more the poor and middle class are able to get for their wages thanks to places like Walmart. It will not be the one percent flooding the stores come Black Friday buying television sets the size of dinner tables. It's interesting how the things that are allegedly becoming less and less obtainable for the poor and middle class (education and health care) have been heavily regulated and managed by the government.

Just What Indebted Students Needed: Hideously Expensive Luxury Dorms

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Taj MahalPrivate and public university dormitories keep getting nicer and nicer—and more expensive—courtesy of soaring tuition prices and generous support from taxpayers.

Students may be graduating $30,000 in debt, but at least they live in relative opulence for four, five, or six years. From the Associated Press:

Campus living for students today is a far cry from the cramped dormitories of generations past. New facilities are geared to handle laptops, smartphones and tablets and offer Wi-Fi connectivity and extra room outlets. Suites housing two or more people — with a shared bathroom instead of communal ones — are also popular, and some of the new halls feature computer labs, study centers, cafes and even a gaming room.

Fifty-two new residence halls at private and public schools to house 19,000 students opened last year or will open this year around the U.S., with a price tag of more than $2 billion, according to Paul Abramson, an analyst with New York-based Intelligence in Education who tracks college construction. Overall, the number of new residence hall construction is up from 40 that Abramson counted a year ago for his annual May survey.

The surge comes as U.S. schools are simultaneously trying to attract students with the comforts of home while fighting perceptions that tuition hikes and other expenses are putting college out of reach for a growing number of Americans. But even as costs go up, demand for updated residence halls and other amenities is motivating schools to keep spending.

Wichita State University provides a good example of what this means for students:

At Wichita State, a new $65 million residence hall and dining facility at the center of campus has a waiting list while openings are plentiful at the university's older, lower-priced halls. It'll cost between $10,000 and $12,000 a year (including meals) to live in the new facility, compared to $6,800 a year for older residence halls.

Nicer stuff is nice, sure. Infrastructure gets old and needs to be replaced. And campuses can certainly support a range of differently-priced living options.

All that said, the trend seems to be toward more opulent housing, even as students have fallen a trillion dollars into debt to get degrees that are less and less likely to guarantee jobs. Since the federal government's loan program helps students pay the cost of college up front—no matter how insane it is—colleges have every incentive to keep raising the price.

Now that so many graduates are having trouble repaying their loans, the government is considering a number of measures to reduce or forgive their debts. It's easy to see where this leads. Since the government made the loans, taxpayers take the hit.

In other words, students may not be able to afford a night at the Ritz Carlton University, but as long as the bill doesn't come for years—or gets sent to taxpayers instead—who will notice?