Minor Thoughts from me to you

Archives for Government (page 1 / 7)

An ‘Off-the-Shelf, Skeleton Project’

An ‘Off-the-Shelf, Skeleton Project’ →

Jason Koebler, Joseph Cox, and Emanuel Maiberg, writing for Vice, provide a look at the app that was supposed to make it easy for volunteers to report the results of the Iowa caucuses.

Motherboard asked six cybersecurity and app development experts we trust to analyze the app. The app was built on top of React Native, an open-source app development package released by Facebook that can be used for both Android and iOS apps, according to Kasra Rahjerdi, who has been an Android developer since the original Android project was launched, and Robert Baptise, a white-hat hacker who has exposed security flaws in many popular apps and reviewed the code. Rahjerdi said that the app contains default React Native metadata and that it comes off as a "very very off the shelf skeleton project plus add your own code kind of thing."

"Honestly, the biggest thing is—I don’t want to throw it under the bus—but the app was clearly done by someone following a tutorial. It’s similar to projects I do with my mentees who are learning how to code," Rahjerdi said. "They started with a starter package and they just added things on top of it. I get deja vu from my classes because the code looks like someone Googled things like 'how to add authentication to React Native App' and followed the instructions," Rahjerdi said.

"The mobile app looks hastily thrown together," Dan Guido, CEO of cybersecurity consulting firm Trail of Bits, told Motherboard.

So the app has the look of something that was written by someone who's a newcomer to programming, rather than someone experienced.​

To properly login and submit results, caucus chairs had to enter a precinct ID number, a PIN code, and a two-factor identification code, each of which were six-digits long. "We saw a lot of people entering their precinct ID instead of their PIN in the PIN spot. There were some issues with not knowing where to put what credential, which is a difficult thing to design around,” Niemira said. “Having to sign in with three different six-digit numbers is confusing on the best day, but it was a call that was made in order to help keep this process as secure as possible.”

The app required users to keep track of 3 different 6-digit codes and enter them in the correct fields, during a confusing, high-pressure event. And those users are all volunteers, from a demographic that's not known for its fluency with technology. That's a complete failure of user-experience design.

According to state records, the app was built in several months at a cost of $63,182.

"We started our engagement with the IDP in August and began requirement gatherings and beginning to develop the app at that point, so we basically had the month of August, September, October, November, and December to do it, though requirements gathering takes a long time, so we didn’t have a final production version of this until pretty close to caucus time," Niemira said.

​The app was done in a rush, with no time to think through the requirements and create a design that would be usable, secure, and fault tolerant. Let alone to create code that was well-tested and robust. Or time to adequately train users and ensure that they had the app installed and working several weeks before the caucuses.

Election security experts have been saying for years that we should not put election systems online, and that we shouldn't be using apps to transmit results. And, if U.S. election officials are going to use apps like this, that they should be open to scrutiny and independent security audits.

“We were really concerned about the fact there was so much opacity. I said over and over again trust is the product of transparency times communication. The DNC steadfastly refused to offer any transparency. It was hard to know what to expect except the worst,” Greg Miller, cofounder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, which publicly warned the IDP against using the app weeks ago, told Motherboard.

Stamos echoed that sentiment. "Our message is that apps like this should be developed in the sunlight,” he said, “and part of an open bug bounty."

Politicians seems to be allergic to doing things out in the open, with the full scrutiny and criticism that comes with transparency. This debacle is the inevitable result of secrecy, penny-pinching, tight timelines, and hubris.

Snail Mail and Nuisance Calls: New Details on the Iowa Caucus Problems

Snail Mail and Nuisance Calls: New Details on the Iowa Caucus Problems →

I've seen the Berners claiming that the chaos coming out of Iowa is an attempt to stop Bernie Sanders by denying him a clear cut win. I like to go with Hanlon's Razor instead: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity". I don't think the people that go into politics and become leaders of state or national parties are actually smart enough to be running complex one-day-only events like primaries and caucuses. Nothing I've heard out of Iowa has changed my mind.

Trip Gabriel and Reid J. Epstein, for the New York Times.

Iowa Democratic officials said on a private conference call on Wednesday night that nearly all the much-delayed results of Monday’s caucuses would be released by Thursday, although a few precincts might remain outstanding.

The reason? Tally sheets had been dropped into snail mail.

Besides an untested, buggy smartphone app that was used for the first time, a backup hotline number for caucus organizers to call in results was flooded with nuisance calls after the number was disseminated on social media, party leaders said.

“All the Trump people from around the country started calling and tearing everybody a new one,” Ken Sager, the Iowa Democratic Party treasurer, told members of the party’s central committee on the 1 hour 20 minute call.

There were 85 phone lines to take calls at the party headquarters in Des Moines, said Kevin Geiken, the party’s executive director. But caucus chairs faced long wait times “because of the excessive calls we were getting” and because the legitimate calls to report results each took about five minutes, twice as long as in a dry run.

As he has said publicly, Mr. Price repeated that Monday night’s problems began when a coding error was discovered in a back-end computer that received the results sent in by volunteer leaders of each caucus via the app.

“We moved to Plan B, which was to ask precinct captains to call us with their results,” he said.

After the phone lines became swamped, with some precinct leaders giving up and going to bed without reporting results, the party moved essentially to Plan C, a manual examination of the worksheets from each caucus.

“We’re using the caucus math worksheets to report the results, and that takes time," Mr. Price said.

Because a few precinct chairs dropped their worksheets into traditional mailboxes, they would not be counted until they were delivered. “We are in the process of waiting for the mail to arrive,” Mr. Price said. “Those final precincts may take a little bit for us to get those sheets.”

One caucus chairman not on the call, Tom Courtney, said on Wednesday that he had been taken aback by what happened. After hours of being unable to get through to party headquarters on Monday night, Mr. Courtney gave up and went to bed. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “At 3 in the morning, I emailed everything to the guy I was trying to call, then I texted it.”

The next day, he said, he received a call from state headquarters that it hadn’t seen his results. “I gave them to him over the phone, again,” Mr. Courtney said.

Then someone from the state party drove the 2 hours 40 minutes from Des Moines to Burlington, where Mr. Courtney lives, to pick up the paper worksheets from his county.

Florida Prison Guard Allegedly Paralyzed an Inmate and Molested a Child

Florida Prison Guard Allegedly Paralyzed an Inmate and Molested a Child →

Records released last week in the lawsuit revealed that Turner had a decade-long history of inmate complaints against him alleging excessive force, sexual abuse and misconduct, racial slurs, and sadistic punishments that included leaving a handcuffed woman in 93-degree heat for 3 hours while calling her a "fat pig." Another inmate told sheriff's deputies that she witnessed Turner and another officer trading contraband cigarettes for oral sex.

None of that stopped Turner, who at some point was promoted to lieutenant, until this August.

Weimar's hospitalization sent shockwaves through the state, drew national media coverage, and put a gruesome spotlight on Florida's problem-ridden and wildly expensive prison system, especially Lowell, where inmates have long alleged sexual abuse and violence by guards.

Last August, the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation into pervasive misconduct and sexual assaults by correctional staff at Lowell. A 2015 Miami Herald investigation found numerous accusations of assaults, retaliation, filthy conditions, inadequate healthcare, and suspicious deaths at the prison, as well as "an inadequate number of cameras," which allows guards to hide brutality.

Democratic Florida state Rep. Dianne Hart said in a statement today that she applauds the Marion County Sheriff's Office for making the arrest. "However, with over 130 pages of documented official FDOC incident reports detailing the horrors that Lt. Turner inflicted on the women of Lowell Correctional sitting on my desk and Cheryl Weimar with a broken neck," she continued, "I find it absolutely disgusting that Lt. Keith Turner still has a place at FDOC, and I pray that justice is served in all cases involving Lt. Turner."

After Weimar's hospitalization, the state launched several investigations into the incident, and Turner and the other guard were reassigned to jobs where they would not have contact with inmates.

Following his arrest, the FDOC says it is moving to fire Turner immediately.

"The Sheriff's findings in this case against Mr. Turner are abhorrent and in complete contrast to the values and integrity held by our staff," FDOC Secretary Mark Inch said in a press statement. "We are moving forward with his immediate dismissal."

Apparently not. It certainly looks as though FDOC Secretary Mark Inch didn't have any problem with Lt. Turner using excessive force, sexually abusing inmates, using racial slurs, and handing out sadistic punishments. For some reason, the Florida Department of Corrections chose not to act against this piece of trash until he'd crippled an inmate. From where I sit, Floridians need to clean house throughout the entirety of the Department of Corrections, starting with Secretary Inch and working their way down to Lt. Turner.

2018 Midterms — Understanding the Results

2018 Midterms — Understanding the Results →

Kevin D. Williamson has multiple points to make. This is the one that I particularly agree with.

Fourth, and related: The Democrats don’t seem to understand what it is they are really fighting, which, in no small part, is not the Republicans but the constitutional architecture of the United States. The United States is, as the name suggests, a union of states, which have interests, powers, and characters of their own. They are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government. All that talk about winning x percent of the “national House vote” or the “national Senate vote” — neither of which, you know, exists — is a backhanded way of getting at the fact that they do not like how our governments are organized, and that they would prefer a more unitary national government under which the states are so subordinated as to be effectively inconsequential. They complain that, under President Trump, “the Constitution is hanging by a thread” — but they don’t really much care for the actual order established by that Constitution, and certainly not for the limitations it puts on government power through the Bill of Rights and other impediments to étatism.

I know people who will argue that the "national House vote" does indeed exist. And they probably are voting with national outcomes in mind. But all politics is local and voters can only vote for the candidates on their own ballot. And as much as people give Congress — as an overall body — abysmally low grades, they tend to give their own representatives a much higher grade.

That's why Congress has such a low rate of turnover: everyone hates everyone else's representatives, but loves their own. And that's why I don't think that a "national House vote" truly exists. I can imagine a world in which a national vote does exist, but it's a different world than this one, with a different electoral system.

Conservatives Need to Put Aside Kneejerk Police Support

Conservatives Need to Put Aside Kneejerk Police Support →

Steven Greenhut, as seen on Reason.com. I endorse this view.

When it comes to problems in the public schools, my conservative friends are right on target with their critique. These schools often do a poor or mediocre job performing an important function. That's because they lack competition and are funded by political priorities rather than customers. Teachers' unions have undue sway over the entire process. They make it nearly impossible to fire even grossly incompetent teachers and that small percentage harms many students. Those same unions drive up unsustainable benefit costs.

Like everyone else, conservatives appreciate teachers—but they realize that the current taxpayer-funded system needs many reforms and more competition. There's nothing wrong with pointing this out, which is a reality in any government-funded, union-controlled monopoly anywhere in the world.

Yet when it comes to another type of taxpayer-funded, union-controlled monopoly, conservatives lose their sense of perspective. I'm referring, of course, to local and state police agencies. The same dynamic described above works there, too. Police agencies are bureaucratic. Unions protect the bad apples and make it nearly impossible to fire anyone—even officers caught on video misbehaving or being abusive to the public. The agencies hand out unsustainable benefits and have some bizarre spending priorities (tank-like vehicles, etc.). They are secretive and insular. They use asset forfeiture to grab the property of people never convicted or even accused of a crime.

Do Family Values Stop at the Rio Grande for Conservatives?

Do Family Values Stop at the Rio Grande for Conservatives? →

As we prepare to celebrate America's Independence Day, it's important to stop, reflect, and remember what it is that America stands for. Shikha Dalmia, writing for Reason.com, offers a hint.

For months now, the Trump administration has been literally kidnapping children from parents arriving at the border in search of asylum and sending them off to prison-like detention camps thousands of miles away. In one particularly egregious case, authorities seized the 7-year-old daughter of a mother fleeing violence in Congo. Without offering her any explanation, they dispatched her little girl to a Chicago camp while holding the mother in San Diego. The mom wasn't being punished because she was trying to sneak in illegally. She presented herself to immigration authorities exactly as she was supposed to and even passed an initial screening to determine if she had a "credible fear" of harm in her home country. It took the ACLU four months of dogged petitioning before the distraught mother and the traumatized daughter were finally reunited.

In another case, an 18-month-old boy was taken away from his Honduran mother, who arrived at the Texas border. She showed the authorities copious records to prove that she was in fact the infant's mom, but they didn't care. They ordered her to place her baby in a government vehicle and drove him away to a San Antonio facility while she wept helplessly and her terrified son screamed inconsolably. She herself was detained in a facility in Taylor, Texas.

The administration pretends that these are isolated incidents but, in fact, a _New York Times_ investigation a few weeks ago found more than 700 cases of parents and children separated just since October, including 100 under the age of 4. The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the parents.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

(Addendum: Yes, I'm aware that this article is 2 months old. It's still a good introduction to this particular horrible policy, for anyone who's been living under a rock. And I like the way Shikha Dalmia framed the issue.)

Wisconsin Beekeepers, Maple Syrup Producers Aren't Too Sweet On Proposed FDA Nutrition Labels

Wisconsin Beekeepers, Maple Syrup Producers Aren't Too Sweet On Proposed FDA Nutrition Labels →

Shamane Mills, writing for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The federal government is trying to get people to eat better with updated Nutrition Fact labels on packaged foods, and one change to the label would specify added sugars.

But those who keep bees and tap trees are fighting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposal, and the federal agency may go back to the drawing board.

The FDA proposal is designed to educate consumers about how much sugar they eat. But producers of honey and maple syrup say a label with the words "added sugars" is confusing — and misleading — because they aren’t adding anything.

One such producer is Kent Pegorsch, president of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association and a commercial beekeeper in Waupaca.

"We objected to the wording which was misleading consumers to believe that we were adding corn syrup or other sugars to our product when in fact we weren’t, it was just naturally occurring sugars that were already in the product," Pegorsch said.

Wisconsin ranks fourth in maple syrup production and 12th in honey production.

The FDA received more than 3,000 comments on its labeling proposal, most from honey and maple syrup producers. The proposed label changes were debuted in May 2016 by former First Lady Michelle Obama and the comment period closed June 15.

"This is (the) second comment period based on feedback they received during first comment period. I unfortunately have a feeling the FDA is close to putting this into the regulations, and they’re really not going to clarify this any further than possibly allowing us to add a footnote on the label explaining what added sugars actually means. I don’t foresee a big change coming," said Pegorsch.

The FDA said in a constituent update that it "looks forward to working with stakeholders to devise a sensible solution."

This is the sort of thing that gives government regulation a bad name.

Vote against the GOP this November

Vote against the GOP this November →

George Will, writing in The Washington Post.

The principle: The congressional Republican caucuses must be substantially reduced. So substantially that their remnants, reduced to minorities, will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers. They will then have leisure time to wonder why they worked so hard to achieve membership in a legislature whose unexercised muscles have atrophied because of people like them.

Ryan and many other Republicans have become the president’s poodles, not because James Madison’s system has failed but because today’s abject careerists have failed to be worthy of it. As explained in Federalist 51: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place." Congressional Republicans (congressional Democrats are equally supine toward Democratic presidents) have no higher ambition than to placate this president. By leaving dormant the powers inherent in their institution, they vitiate the Constitution’s vital principle: the separation of powers.

Recently Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who is retiring, became an exception that illuminates the depressing rule. He proposed a measure by which Congress could retrieve a small portion of the policymaking power that it has, over many decades and under both parties, improvidently delegated to presidents. Congress has done this out of sloth and timidity -- to duck hard work and risky choices. Corker’s measure would have required Congress to vote to approve any trade restrictions imposed in the name of "national security." All Senate Republicans worthy of the conservative label that all Senate Republicans flaunt would privately admit that this is conducive to sound governance and true to the Constitution’s structure. But the Senate would not vote on it -- would not allow it to become just the second amendment voted on this year.

This is because the amendment would have peeved the easily peeved president. The Republican-controlled Congress, which waited for Trump to undo by unilateral decree the border folly they could have prevented by actually legislating, is an advertisement for the unimportance of Republican control.

​Yes, exactly this. Why run for Congress if you're not going to actually use the office to do something, to stand for something, and to act as a source of power independent of the President? If the President is wrong -- of your party or not -- act! You have the power, you have only to exercise it.

If the Congress is unwilling to exercise its power, it should be shown the door.

GOP Defectors Have Received Thousands From Teachers Union

GOP Defectors Have Received Thousands From Teachers Union →

The two Republicans who broke ranks with their party and announced they would vote against education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos have received thousands of dollars from the nation's largest teachers union.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) have each benefited from contributions from the National Education Association. Collins received $2,000 from the union in 2002 and 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Murkowski, meanwhile, has received $23,500.

Is this an example of a special interest buying legislators or of legislators being responsive to public opinion? Careful — I'll hold you to your answer the next time that there's a vote involving a lobbying group and legislators that have received donations from that lobbying group.

Congrats San Diego, you win by losing Chargers

Congrats San Diego, you win by losing Chargers →

The people of San Diego won by losing. Chargers owner Dean Spanos did the corporate equivalent of taking his ball and going home Thursday, bolting for Los Angeles because San Diego residents had balked at building his team a fancy new stadium. Imagine the nerve of those people! Refusing to spend millions for a stadium that, studies have shown, would likely end up costing taxpayers more than what is originally estimated while providing less in return.

For a team owned by a family whose net worth was $2.4 billion as of Thursday, according to Forbes, no less. Yes, billion. With a B.

Emphatically seconded. Sports owners need to fund their own opulent stadiums. And if they don't think it's a good investment, why should taxpayers be expected to pay?

GOP Congress Has a Detailed Agenda

GOP Congress Has a Detailed Agenda →

Dave Weigel, writing at the Washington Post.

For six years, since they took back the House of Representatives, Republicans have added to a pile of legislation that moldered outside the White House. In their thwarted agenda, financial regulations were to be unspooled. Business taxes were to be slashed. Planned Parenthood would be stripped of federal funds. The ­Affordable Care Act was teed up for repeal — dozens of times.

When the 115th Congress begins this week, with Republicans firmly in charge of the House and Senate, much of that legislation will form the basis of the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s. And rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law.

The dynamic reflects just how ready Congress is to push through a conservative makeover of government, and how little Trump’s unpredictable, attention-grabbing style matters to the Republican game plan.

That plan was long in the making.

Almost the entire agenda has already been vetted, promoted and worked over by Republicans and think tanks that look at the White House less for leadership and more for signing ceremonies.

In 2012, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist described the ideal president as “a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen” and “sign the legislation that has already been prepared.” In 2015, when Senate Republicans used procedural maneuvers to undermine a potential Democratic filibuster and vote to repeal the health-care law, it did not matter that President Obama’s White House stopped them: As the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action put it, the process was “a trial run for 2017, when we will hopefully have a President willing to sign a full repeal bill.”

“What I told our committees a year ago was: Assume you get the White House and Congress,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNBC in a post-election interview last month. “Come 2018, what do you want to have accomplished?” Negotiations with the incoming Trump administration, he said, were mostly “on timeline, on an execution strategy.”

​That's funny. I've been hearing for the last 6 years that the Republican Congress just liked thwarting President Obama and didn't know how to govern or have any plans of its own. I wonder if that's an example of the fake news that I've suddenly been hearing so much about.

This entry was tagged. Government News

New York City's Expensive New Subway

New York City's Expensive New Subway →

Progressives are fond of pointing out the excellent quality of life in Europe. America, they say, could enjoy the same quality of life if only we were willing to tax each other and spend the way Europe's democracies do. The problem, of course, as conservatives and libertarians are fond of pointing out, is that there are vast differences between Europe and America. Matt Yglesias, at Vox, explains.

According to transit blogger Alon Levy’s compendium of international subway projects, Berlin’s U55 line cost $250 million per kilometer, Paris’ Metro Line 14 cost $230 million per kilometer, and Copenhagen’s Circle Line cost $260 million per kilometer.

​Okay.

Today, New York City is celebrating the opening of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, a project that’s been anticipated for nearly a century, and that’s sorely needed to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines and to extend access to some very densely populated neighborhoods. But exciting as the opening is, phase one is also a very modest-sized project encompassing just three stations. The plan is, eventually, to extend it up into East Harlem, and potentially then either go further south or else swing west to provide crosstown subway service across 125th Street.

Any of this would be extremely useful to the city, but it’s far from clear that any of it will ever happen. That’s because even with $1 billion currently allocated in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s capital budget for phase two of the Second Avenue subway, they’re still badly short of the $6 billion that’s going to be needed.

That's a lot of money.​

The $6 billion price tag for phase two works out to $2.2 billion per kilometer. That would make it the world’s most expensive subway project on a per kilometer basis, narrowly surpassing phase one of the Second Avenue subway, which clocked in at “only” $1.7 billion per kilometer.

And there's your difference. NYC is spending 10x more per kilometer than Berlin, Paris, or Copenhagen is.​ And it's not that NYC is unwilling to spend money. It's just not it's not getting much for the money that it's spending.

But this kind of discussion too often elides the real practical difficulties in implementing big domestic policies like those, and the ways in which the US system is uniquely bad and inefficient about doing so. Between the Second Avenue subway, the $10.2 billion East Side Access tunnel for the LIRR, and the $4 billion World Trade Center PATH station, the New York City region is in fact spending a lot of money on upgrading its mass transit system. The money is simply not going to generate as much transit service as a comparable amount of spending would in Paris or Copenhagen, because New York’s institutions don’t seem up to the task of spending it as effectively. Improving is both possible and desirable, but it would take actual time and skill and effort.

...

Until places like New York and California — the bluest jurisdictions that are most open to the idea of taxing and spending to improve public services — get better at actually delivering those services in a cost-effective way, it’s going to be difficult to persuade residents of more skeptical jurisdictions that it makes sense to take the same agenda national.

​American governments are good at spending money but bad at spending money well. I think it's perfectly reasonable for American citizens to look at the poor management of their governments and then ask why they should be giving those governments even more resources to mismanage.

I don't even think it's fair to claim that this problem would be fixed if only Republicans stopped obstructing good government and worked together with Democrats in a bipartisan alliance. ​​Taking a long view of the patronage machines that have dominated city governments throughout America's history, it's easy to conclude that American government is best at looting the private sector and handing it out to the ruling party's friends. This is a bipartisan problem and one that argues against giving American governments, of either party, too many resources.

Hacking Democratic Rules Isn’t Good Government

Hacking Democratic Rules Isn’t Good Government →

Megan McCardle makes a good point about people's increasing desire to "win" at politics, by any means, at any cost.

What’s most worrying, however, is that intelligent people are discussing this stuff. Over the last decade, we’ve spent more and more time on these sorts of procedural hacks. Filibusters to prevent judicial nominations -- and parliamentary maneuvers to weaken the filibuster. Debt ceiling brinkmanship -- and whether Obama could mint trillion-dollar platinum coins to get around it. We have become less and less interested in either policy or politics, and more interested in finding some loophole in the rules that will allow one party or the other to impose its will on the country without the messy business of gathering votes and building public support. It started with the courts, but it certainly has not ended there.

Each procedural hack slightly undermines the legitimacy of the system as a whole, and makes the next hack more likely, as parties give up on the pretense that winning an election confers the right to govern, and justify their incremental power grabs by whatever the other party did last.

​> ...

What matters is not who started it, or the last outrage committed by the other side. What matters is who ends it. Unfortunately, while both sides quite agree that it needs to end, they also agree that it should end only after they themselves are allowed last licks. As long as both sides cheer their own violations while crying foul on the other side, the escalation will continue -- until we no longer have a political system worth controlling.

​I've long believed that the most important thing isn't whether you win or lose in politics. The most important thing is to have a system of rules and to strictly abide by those rules, whether or not it gives us the win we want. Increasingly, at all levels of politics, we're choosing to throw out the rule book in favor of winning. In the short term, it appears to give us what we want. In the long term, it's going to destroy the entire concept of American government, with results that no one will like.

Limited Government Limits Corruption

Alberto Mingardi, writing at EconLog:

We are back to the original argument: "liberalising" policies, that go in the direction of decreasing government powers, are in a sense the best competition policy. The less the government can give away, the least a private business could ask from it.

Most people seem to think that there's a way to limit government corruption while continually expanding the areas of our lives that the government controls or affects. This is a false. As long as governmental policies can have a large impact on the economy, people will find a way to make sure that the impact is positive for them (or at least negative for their competitors).

The only effective way to reduce corruption is to reduce the government's ability to make some groups winners and some groups losers.

Rural broadband bills would streamline local approvals

Rural broadband bills would streamline local approvals →

The Wisconsin Assembly is considering some changes to how broadband providers apply to provide service.

AB 820, creates a “Broadband Forward” certification for municipalities that is intended to limit fees and streamline the application process for service providers. To be eligible, municipalities must enact an ordinance that designates a single contact for applicants to work with and provide a timeline for consideration of applications, specific criteria for approval or denial of applications, and enables electronic filing.

It would also prohibit application fees exceeding $100 and bar municipalities from discriminating against providers seeking access to public right-of-ways.

That all sounds good to me.

[Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo] said he’s largely concerned that the bill would place too many restrictions on local governments.

“I’m scared that we’re dictating a whole lot as a state to local municipalities,” he said. “While I support rural broadband like crazy and wanted to sign on just based on the title, I think there’s enough restrictions in there that make me hesitate.”

Oh? How are these restrictions a bad thing? The provisions about providing a single point of contact, hard timelines, and specific criteria all sound like very good things to me. Let the companies know who they're dealing with, how long the process will take, and exactly what they have to do. Get rid of the risk of long delays and capricious criteria.

Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, lauded the bill for prohibiting “unreasonable” fees on service providers. Some of the Telecommunications Association’s member companies have seen right-of-way access fees as high as $5 per foot, making already expensive projects less feasible, he said.

“When you have a project that is looking to invest in a fiber route that’s 10,000 feet long, a $50,000 invoice from a local government seems to cross the line between reasonable and unreasonable. … This will absolutely improve the efficiency of those investments,” Esbeck said.

Given the deplorable lack of rural broadband in America, to say nothing of actual competition, I think the State should approve anything and everything that can speed up the approval and permitting process. The faster and cheaper it is to submit an application for providing broadband service, the more broadband you're likely to get.

John Boehner on House Radicals

John Boehner on House Radicals →

Politico, in the person of Jake Sherman, talked to former Speaker of the House, John Boehner. In the course of the interview, Boehner lamented the tactics of the radical Republicans that constantly battled him.

... Many of his GOP colleagues are perfectionists in a system of government that doesn’t allow for perfection, Boehner said.

“Nothing was good enough,” Boehner said, in a kind of reflective comment he never would’ve made as speaker. “When we protected 99 percent of the American people from an increase in taxes, most of my Republicans colleagues voted no. When we did the big money-saving bill, $2 trillion in 2011, half of my Republican colleagues voted no. Even when we passed these changes to Medicare earlier this year and solved the payment system for how we pay doctors for Medicare patients, which has been a problem for 15 years, and no one could solve it, [Nancy] Pelosi and I got it solved, and paid for it from these long-term changes to Medicare.

​I'm not a John Boehner fan. I think he had a distinct tendency towards going along with whatever the Democrats wanted and that the radical Republicans played a necessary role in putting some steel in his spine.

But I agree with him that "nothing was good enough" for the discontented. Republicans could have had more wins than they did, had the backbenchers blown up a few fewer bills.

Why Daraprim went from $13.50 to $750

Andrew Pollack wrote a shocking expose of corporate greed, revealing that Turing Pharmaceuticals jacked the price of Daraprim from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a tablet. This is a 62-year old drug.

Pollack spent 21 paragraphs writing about the importance of this drug and the shockingly unapologetic greed demonstrated by Turing Pharmaceuticals. I spent 21 paragraphs wondering how a company could increase the price of an unpatented drug by 5,500% without being undercut by a competitor.

In paragraph #22, Pollack finally decided to toss off a few sentences about that.

With the price now high, other companies could conceivably make generic copies, since patents have long expired. One factor that could discourage that option is that Daraprim’s distribution is now tightly controlled, making it harder for generic companies to get the samples they need for the required testing.

Oh-ho. It's government regulation. Manufacturers of generics need to compare their own prototype pills to Daraprim, before they can get government permission to market and sell a generic. Prescription laws make it hard to obtain Daraprim without a prescription and Turing's control over its own supply chain ensures that nothing leaks out. In essence, government restrictions on trade are giving Turing a monopoly on a patent free drug. Turing's price hike would be impossible without this government protection.

The New York Times article frames this as an issue of greed. But greed is a universal constant. It's always with us. Greed is never an explanation for unpleasant behavior. The real question is why nothing is acting as a check on greed. In this case, the government is blocking that market based check. I can see two solutions.

  1. Stop restricting access to pharmaceuticals. If the FDA didn't tightly control drug distribution, generic manufacturers could easily obtain their own supply of Daraprim and start cranking out much cheaper copies. Turing would be forced to lower their prices to match and greed would be kept in check.
  2. If you are going to restrict access to pharmaceuticals, there should be an exception in the law that allows generic manufacturers to easily obtain access to the main drug, for the purposes of cloning it. I see no good reason to give Turing Pharmaceuticals a government enforced monopoly on the drug's distribution and supply once the patent protections have expired.

Once again, the New York Times has made the free market into the villain of the piece. I think the real villain is the government restrictions that give Turing Pharmaceuticals power it doesn't need and shouldn't have.

Spread the (Local) Wealth Around

Twitter friend @joeld linked to an article about The Miracle of Minneapolis. The article was asking (and answering) the question of how "the city stayed so affordable despite its wealth and success".

In the 1960s, local districts and towns in the Twin Cities region offered competing tax breaks to lure in new businesses, diminishing their revenues and depleting their social services in an effort to steal jobs from elsewhere within the area. In 1971, the region came up with an ingenious plan that would help halt this race to the bottom, and also address widening inequality. The Minnesota state legislature passed a law requiring all of the region’s local governments—in Minneapolis and St. Paul and throughout their ring of suburbs—to contribute almost half of the growth in their commercial tax revenues to a regional pool, from which the money would be distributed to tax-poor areas. Today, business taxes are used to enrich some of the region’s poorest communities.

Never before had such a plan—known as “fiscal equalization”—been tried at the metropolitan level. “In a typical U.S. metro, the disparities between the poor and rich areas are dramatic, because well-off suburbs don’t share the wealth they build,” says Bruce Katz, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. But for generations now, the Twin Cities’ downtown area, inner-ring neighborhoods, and tony suburbs have shared in the metro’s commercial success. By spreading the wealth to its poorest neighborhoods, the metro area provides more-equal services in low-income places, and keeps quality of life high just about everywhere.

... The Twin Cities’ housing and tax-sharing policies have resulted in lots of good neighborhoods with good schools that are affordable for young graduates and remain nice to live in even as their paychecks rise. This, in turn, has nurtured a deep bench of 30- and 40-something managers, who support the growth of large companies, and whose taxes flow to poorer neighborhoods, where families have relatively good odds of moving into the middle class.

My immediate reaction to this plan was negative. "I'm a libertarian! I don't believe in making people share the results of their hard work and effort!" Then I stopped to actually think about it. Local governments are, obviously, different from people.

A metropolitan area is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Good suburbs reinforce each other and the city's urban core. Businesses can be located in one suburb, but draw employees from all over the metropolitan area. In a very real sense, the success of each suburb—or city—depends both on its own decisions and on the decisions, and general health, of the surrounding suburbs.

I think it makes a lot of sense to have the city and its suburbs sharing tax revenue with each other. They each contribute to the local pool of welfare, with businesses and employees constantly crisscrossing boundaries as they live, work, and play each day. It seems to make good sense to make sure that the entire metropolitan area is economically healthy, rather than having some areas that are wealthy just because a business is headquartered there instead of five miles away, inside a different municipal boundary.

I'm now interested in having Wisconsin apply a local version of this Minnesotan law.

Here's A Better Idea Than Net Neutrality Knockoffs

Here's A Better Idea Than Net Neutrality Knockoffs →

Brock Cusick writes,

My proposal for fixing these problems is fairly simple, and relies on a mix of civic organization and free-market entrepreneurialism. The goal is to break the current monopoly on ISP service held by local cable companies in most of America, force local utility companies to act in the public's best interest, and bring some competition to the ISP business to keep prices low and innovation high.

Here it is.

Require utility companies to lease space on their rights-of-way to at least four ISPs, at cost.

Call it infrastructure neutrality, or open leasing. This proposal should independently provide most of the benefits in changing the Internet companies' status to 'telecommunications service' as mere competition between local firms will discourage them from withholding any service or level of service offered by their local competitors. This competition would thus provide the consumer protections that voters are looking for, while allowing Internet companies to remain more lightly regulated (and thus more innovative) information services.

I like this idea much better than the current net neutrality suggestions floating around. I really want my internet providers to compete against each other for my business. I have far more faith in that competition than I do that we'll get competent regulation of monopoly internet providers.

Dear Media: How Not to Screw Up the Next Ferguson

Dear Media: How Not to Screw Up the Next Ferguson →

Robert Tracinski writes,

The early reports were very clear that Michael Brown was a good, kind-hearted young man bound for college, that the shooting was totally unprovoked, that he was shot multiple times in the back, that he was executed in cold blood. Then the evidence, as it emerged, knocked down each of these claims one by one.

Cases involving the use of force tend to be messy, and getting at the facts is difficult. It requires a lot of sorting of competing claims, cross-examination and confrontation of witnesses, and a thorough review of the physical evidence, which often refutes the eyewitness testimony.

Here are his rules of thumb for future cases:

  1. It’s not a story until there are facts (and claims aren’t facts).
  2. Forensics is a science.
  3. People are individuals, not symbols.
  4. Legal procedures and privileges exist for a reason.
  5. You are not the story.

I'm especially fond of #3 and #4.