By Anthony Gregory •
Tuesday November 12, 2013 11:53 AM PST •
Recent polling conducted by Amy Zegart at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation reveals an unsurprising degree of public uncertainty and confusion regarding the NSA. We should expect that, flooded with news reports, most Americans don’t know the exact contours of the program.
What caught my eye, however, was this little nugget, as reported in The Washington Post:
● A majority of people who in the past year watched at least six spy movies “had favorable views of NSA, but only 34 percent of infrequent spy moviegoers reported favorable views of the agency,” according to the poll.
● Forty-four percent of those who watched spy-themed TV shows frequently or occasionally approved of the NSA programs that collected telephone records and Internet data. By comparison, 29 percent of those who rarely watched such shows approved of the surveillance.
Public attitudes toward government spying have correlated to popular cultural trends ever since the 1821 publication of The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground, the first American spy novel written by James Fenimore Cooper, the first prominent American novelist. As Brett F. Woods explains in his essay on the novel:
To offset the early nineteenth century perception of spies as ignoble, inglorious creatures, Cooper attempts to portray Birch as an icon of American patriotism appropriate to historical adventure. To accomplish this, one of Cooper’s ploys is to have morally unassailable characters compare Birch favorably to soldiers. Thus the righteous rebel trooper from Virginia, Captain Lawton, praises Birch: “He may be a spy — he must be one...but he has a heart above enmity, and a soul that would honor a gallant soldier” . . . . This passage likens spies to soldiers, a significant new concept proposed by Cooper. When a soldier breaks moral laws by killing he is absolved by his country, and Cooper seeks to place Harvey Birch in this same category.
Spies were further elevated in a slew of American novels in the late nineteenth century, and became central heroes in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century thanks largely to films such as those in the James Bond franchise. Whereas in early American history, government spying faced a largely negative public perception, the professionalized modern spying of our era has been glorified in the vast bulk of TV and movies featuring government agents using their omniscient technological gizmos to apprehend the bad guy just in the nick of time. The post-Cold Era saw a return of skepticism toward the surveillance state, especially in such films as Enemy of the State, in which the NSA is portrayed as nefarious. Since 9/11, most of the current has gone the other way.
I’m unsure whether people who favor spying are more likely to enjoy spy movies or those who watch spy movies are more likely to become comfortable with surveillance. But the correlation between a spy culture in the mass media and public support for spying seems significant. Since the problem is cultural so must be the solution. I propose that when watching any show in which the government is the hero, it is fine to root for the given protagonist, but simply recognize it is fiction. In the movies, government spies save us from terrorists hiding under our beds with their all-seeing eyes, just as men donning bat suits fight homicidal clowns in the streets and soldiers in giant robotic suits clash with interdimensional aquatic monsters over the future of humanity.
Tags: Civil Liberties, Culture, Surveillance, Technology, Terrorism, The State, War
By John R. Graham •
Monday November 11, 2013 2:28 PM PST •
Hearing aids have been expensive—until now.
An interesting story in the New York Times a little over a year ago related the journey of a woman who had broken the shell of one of her hearing aids. Shocked at the price of hearing aids from private audiologists—at least $2,000 for a set, and usually $3,000—she sought another solution. Learning that about 70 percent of this price is retail mark up, the woman searched online and found hearing aids available at reputable online stores—such as Audicus or Costco—for as little as $399. Searching a little more, she found an audiologist who offered to repair the shell of her old hearing aid for $100. So, that’s the choice she made.
But it gets even better. Only one year later, new technology has allowed entrepreneurs to develop hearing aids that they plan to sell for $300, and which have better sound quality than ever, according to neutral reports.
But wait—there’s more! This good news comes in a fascinating article by a venture capitalist published at VentureBeat just last month. The author, who invests in health-technology ventures, sketches out the economics of the hearing-aid industry. It has been high margin and low volume. Traditionally, the manufacturer would sell a pair of hearing aids to an audiologist for $1,000, earning a gross margin of 43 percent. At a retail price of $3,000, after buying the device and incurring sales and other costs, the audiologist’s grow margin has been 55 percent. On the other hand, the average audiologist sells only 16 pairs a month.
But that is all changing. Not only are online vendors and innovating hearing-aid manufacturers cutting costs and improving quality and service times, but digital developers are offering online hearing apps via iTunes and other virtual stores for as little as $3.99. (Yes: There is a decimal after that 3.)
Tags: Business, Entrepreneurship, Health, Healthcare, Innovation, Insurance, Medicare, Technology
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa •
Monday November 11, 2013 2:03 PM PST •
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
The Venezuelan government’s war on price inflation is not a metaphorical one—last weekend President Maduro, who owes his title to April’s rigged election, ordered the military takeover
of Daka, a chain of electronic stores, and the arrest
of several managers from that and other retail companies. The rhetoric employed by Maduro was inevitably interpreted by the masses as an encouragement to loot—which is what they did in the city of Valencia.
Besides the images sent out by citizen-reporters in Valencia, the picture that best captures the essence of what is happening is the one tweeted by a government minister who tried to justify the measures. The photo shows a washer/dryer that, in the words of the minister, “cost 39,000 VEF on November 1 and today costs 59,000 VEF, a nearly 100 percent rise in a week...”
Yes, minister, that is precisely what happens when you are on the verge of hyperinflation! The inflation rate is now nearing 60 percent and, as anyone who has lived under those conditions (including yours truly) knows, going from 60 percent to 1,000 percent is a lot easier than going from 3 percent to 40 or 50 percent.
For many years Venezuela has produced nothing but oil (in decreasing quantities) and has therefore had to import pretty much everything the population consumes. The artificial level at which the government has kept the bolivar in spite of the massive outflow of hard currency required to meet those import needs has, of course, caused a severe drop in foreign-exchange reserves. Government controls and the militarization of the economy have not prevented the black market from taking the real exchange rate to a level ten times higher than the official one. No wonder people who have to obtain US dollars to import even the most basic stuff sell it at much higher prices than the government Wonderland economy dictates.
Tags: Inflation, Latin America, Price control, Venezuela
By Mary Theroux •
Monday November 11, 2013 12:04 PM PST •
Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill in September to raise the state’s minimum wage. Photo: Nick Ut, Associated Press
As pictured here, Governor Jerry Brown has signed new minimum wage legislation that ups the minimum productivity to be employed in California to $9 per hour starting next year, and $10 per hour in 2016.
Supervisors will also have to increase their productivity if they want to stay employed. The San Francisco Chronicle offers this editorialized interpretation in its “news” coverage of the bill:
This will also help low-wage supervisors because state law requires most employees who are exempt from overtime to be paid at least twice minimum wage.
Again, minimum wage laws only “help” those who are able to provide employers with skills that bring the employers value at least equal to the minimum wage.
Those without job skills, or without sufficient skills to produce value at least equal to the minimum wage find themselves out of work, out of luck, and more dependent on the government for their support.
Tags: Affirmative Action, Budget and Tax Policy, Business, California, Children, Economics, Employment, Labor, Poverty, Progressivism, Regulation, Unemployment, Welfare
By David J. Theroux •
Thursday November 7, 2013 1:17 PM PST •
First, we have singers Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood mocking Obamacare at the Country Music Awards. As reported by Aaron Blake in the Washington Post,
“Hey do you have that Obamacare?” Underwood asks when Paisley says he needs to see a doctor. “Oh, it’s great. I started signing up last Thursday, and I’m almost done.”
The two then fumble with a laptop in an attempt to sign up.
“Why’s it spinning?” Paisley asks. “Why’s it smoking?”
The two then proceed to sing a brief song about the law — “Obamacare by Morning.”
Second, here is another new video that deconstructs Obamacare and the lies it has been based on:
For the pivotal alternative to Obamacare, please see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book:
Tags: Budget and Tax Policy, Corruption, Culture, Entertainment, Healthcare, Humor, Malpractice, Media, Medicaid, Medicare, Nanny State, Personal Liberty, Politics, Power, Safety, Socialism, The State, Transparency, Video
By Lawrence J. McQuillan •
Thursday November 7, 2013 12:00 PM PST •
California is ranked second in a nationwide scorecard on energy efficiency released yesterday by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a D.C.-based group that works to advance efficiency efforts.
Massachusetts retains the top spot for the third year in a row.
Andrew McAllister, a member of the California Energy Commission, attributed California’s second-place ranking to its strong efficiency standards on home appliances and new construction, utility rebate programs that encourage people to replace inefficient appliances, and the increasing number of electric vehicles. But all of this is nonsense and lies that energy officials tell over and over to justify ever-more burdensome and heavy-handed regulations.
As I discussed in my Forbes commentary in July, California’s lower than average electricity use since the 1970s is due to geography and demographic factors that are not replicable in other locations. Research shows that factors other than regulation should get the credit.
Economist Arik Levinson of Georgetown University, who analyzed 46 years of statistical data, concluded: “Even without California’s regulations, its residential electricity consumption per capita would have been falling steadily relative to other U.S. states for the past 40 years.”
Levinson further concluded that California’s experience provides “no lessons for other states or countries considering adopting or tightening their energy-efficiency standards” because California’s “conservation” is actually due to geography and demographic factors that are unique to California and not replicable in other locations.
Despite the scientific evidence, California energy officials such as Andrew McAllister continue spewing lies to advance their power and political agenda.
Tags: California, Energy, Environment, Regulation
By John C. Goodman •
Thursday November 7, 2013 10:02 AM PST •
For the past 20 years I have been trying to convince my colleagues in the health policy community that managed competition contains perverse economic incentives. These incentives do more than misallocate resources. They create ominous risks for the health and safety of patients with serious medical conditions.
Consider the editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. If you are inclined to believe Barack Obama’s claim that people losing their insurance are giving up skimpy coverage for much better benefits, read the editorial again, and again, and again.
The patient in question has a rare form of cancer that is almost always fatal. Yet she is alive, thanks to the efforts of doctors in San Diego, at Stanford University, and in Texas. Over the past year, UnitedHealthcare has spent $1.2 million on this woman’s medical expenses. But she has just been informed that her insurance is being cancelled. And in the new California exchange, the only plan that will allow her to continue seeing her San Diego doctors will not pay for the doctors at Stanford or in Texas. There is no reimbursement for out-of-network services.
Here is my prediction: the kind of coverage this woman had will never again be seen in the individual market in this country.
Tags: Health, Healthcare, Insurance, Price control, Regulation, Risk
By John R. Graham •
Thursday November 7, 2013 9:14 AM PST •
One month after the worst product launch in modern history (yes, worse than “New Coke”), the big question is: Will the federal government be able to rescue health insurers who will lose lots of money in the Obamacare exchanges?
At the beginning of the Obamacare negotiations, insurers recognized that their actuaries would have trouble pricing the policies in the exchanges, which opened for enrollment on October 1. So, the law included “three R’s” in order to backstop their risk. Two of the three “R’s” are critical to insurers’ ability to survive the exchanges through the end of 2016. Both of these persist only through the first three years of Obamacare, by the end of which they believed that risk in the exchanges will have stabilized.
The first “R” is reinsurance. Each year, Obamacare levies a special premium tax on all insurers (whether participating in exchanges or not) as well as self-insured (so-called ERISA) plans (in which employers bear the risk of medical costs and insurers or administrators only process claims). This tax revenue is supplemented by a little extra from the U.S. Treasury. In total, the reinsurance sums are: $12 billion for 2014, $8 billion for 2015, and $5 billion for 2016. (Readers wishing more details, but still in laypersons’ language, are referred to this analysis by actuaries from the Wakely Consulting Group.)
Tags: Corporatism, Healthcare, Insurance, Regulation
By Anthony Gregory •
Wednesday November 6, 2013 9:55 AM PST •
David Eckert failed to make a complete stop at a stop sign after shopping at a Wal-Mart in Deming, New Mexico. Police asked him to step out of his vehicle. They said he appeared to be clenching his buttocks, citing this as probable cause to search his anal cavity for drugs. While detaining him, the police got a warrant from a judge. They took him to a hospital, and over the initial protest of hospital staff that these tests were unethical, they forced Eckert to go through a litany of invasive procedures. They x-rayed his abdominal area. They used fingers to examine his anus more than once. They gave him an enema and forced defecation—three times. Then they sedated him and performed a colonoscopy, examining his anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. Then Eckert was given the medical bill for these expensive procedures.
Of course, the police found no drugs, which is part of why this story is getting so much attention. But even if they had, is this sort of indignity, this degree of invasive coerced treatment, ever justifiable to search for drugs? This case raises lots of questions, not about the abuse of power, but about the power that’s being abused.
The police acted according to the normal, accepted procedures of law enforcement conduct. Cops have nearly unlimited authority under the law to detain someone while they get a warrant, and judges will oblige the vast majority of the time. In this case, clenching his buttocks became probable cause to force the most intrusive procedures upon Eckert, and predictably that’s the type of idiocy the war on drugs necessarily breeds: Any time the government outlaws mere possession of an object, the regular standards of evidence simply can’t work if the goal is to enforce the law with any consistency. There are no victims, so evidence has to be obtained from the suspects on the most flimsy of pretexts.
Tags: Civil Liberties, Personal Liberty, Police, The State
By Randall Holcombe •
Tuesday November 5, 2013 11:27 AM PST •
One difference between choice in markets versus choice in government is that in markets, people choose among alternatives that already exist, whereas with government, people choose among alternatives that might exist in the future. When people cast their dollar votes, sellers in markets already have the products available, whereas when they vote at the ballot box, they are choosing among sellers (candidates) who advertise products they hope to produce if they are elected.
When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, one of the products he offered voters was Social Security reform, but he was never able to deliver. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, one of the products he offered voters was health care reform, which he was able to deliver. But now that people see what the product is like, some are not so enamored with it. Unions, who campaigned hard for Obamacare, don’t want their workers covered by it, and in the news lately, many people who are unable to keep their current health insurance because it does not meet the plan’s mandates are upset. When people choose a hypothetical product that might exist in the future, they should not be surprised if the actual product does not live up to the expectations created by its promoters.
Imagine if you went to an automobile showroom to buy a car, and instead of looking at actual cars, you listened to a salesman tell you what kind of car he could have ready for you in the next few years, if you buy now. To maintain the analogy, the car you buy would not even be designed yet. The salesman would just be telling you how he hoped the design would work out. No pictures, no plans, just hope and change. Very likely, when you saw the actual car, it would not quite be what you were hoping for when you bought in. Partly, this is because it is difficult to anticipate all the trade-offs that go into designing a product, and partly it is because salespeople may have an incentive to oversell the positives and overlook the negatives.
Tags: Budget and Tax Policy, Classical Liberalism, Economics, Elections, Free Market, Healthcare, Politics, Privatization, The State