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OpenMarket: October 2007

  • Senate votes to increase Amtrak subsidy

    October 31, 2007 4:28 PM

    So reports today's New York Times (Oct 31, 07, p. A10). The Senate voted 70 to 22 to authorize $11.4 billion, or $1.9 billion a year, up from the $1.2 billion Amtrak received in recent years.

    According to the Times, "The vote signaled a desire for a major investment in the money-losing railroad service when the Bush administration and other critics say it should be privatized." You might think Amtrak wouldn't need more taxpayer hand-outs because, "High gasoline prices and congestion on highways and at airports have helped increase demand for rail services." But then you also might think ethanol wouldn't need government support when oil is selling for more than $90 a barrel.

    The landslide vote for a bigger Amtrak subsidy (like the earlier landslide vote in the Senate to quintuple the ethanol mandate) illustrates the "logic" that prevails on Capitol Hill: Throw good money after bad!

    In the case of ethanol, we're told, government must mandate and subsidize biofuels because "next generation" technologies are not yet "mature." Well, Amtrak shows that maturity ain't got nothin' to do with it. Trains have been around longer than Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the bill's chief sponsor. Corn may not always be King in Washington, D.C., but Pork will always wear the crown.

  • We don't need no stinkin' permits (or shouldn't)!

    October 31, 2007 3:33 PM

    The bloggers over at DCist are rightly concerned about proposed new rules for photography, filming and sound recording on federal lands that would require "commercial" photographers to get permits before shooting. A group of journalism organizations has complained to the Department of Interior complaining, among other things, about the definition of "commercial."

    In a release, Society of Professional Journalists President Clint Brewer said, "Public land should be safeguarded, but the rules the department is seeking to codify simply go too far." Does he mean to say that prior restraint is OK, as long as it's on federal land and the definition of journalism is narrow enough to ensnare commerical speech only?

    Rather than trying to define what constitutes "commercial" speech vs. "journalism," free speech would be far more secure if First Amendment protections were extended to the "commercial" speech as well.

    Better yet, the less amount of land that is in federal hands, the less of a problem this would be. (Thanks to Megan McLaughlin for the DCist link.)

  • Supreme Court Reviews $2.5 Billion Punitive Damage Award Against Exxon

    October 31, 2007 1:28 PM

    Jacob Sullum's syndicated column describes Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, in which the Supreme Court will decide whether federal maritime law permits punitive damages against Exxon, and if so, whether the $2.5 billion in punitive damages it was ordered to pay for an oil spill was excessive.

    Sullum notes that the punitive damages work out to $23,000 for each barrel of oil spilled, and that Exxon has "spent more than $3.4 billion on clean-up costs, fines, and compensation payments," quite apart from the punitive damages awarded against it. Moreover, even the appeals court that set the punitive damages admitted "that Exxon acted quickly to mitigate and repair" the effects of the oil spill.

    Yet, ironically, this excessive damage award is cited by trial lawyers (and commenters at liberal blogs such as DailyKos) as an example of a big company getting off too lightly (since the appeals court reduced the punitive damage award from the $5 billion awarded by the trial court to $2.5 billion, which is still an astronomical sum). They won't be satisfied until unguided juries are permitted to redistribute the entire gross national product.

  • Update: FCC Can Void Cable Agreements

    October 31, 2007 1:03 PM

    As I wrote about earlier in the week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had been talking about banning exclusivity deals between landlords and cable television providers. The FCC announced today that it now has the power to nullify contracts between these private parties, which represent a monopoly within apartment buildings. According Susanne Guyer of Verizon, (reported by CNN)

    "Millions of consumers live in apartments, condos or other private developments, and, until now, many of them have been denied the benefits of video competition as a result of exclusive access agreements used by cable providers to shield themselves from competition."

    Applying that logic to its extreme, one would also have to say that apartment living denies tenants access to the competition between manufacturers of gutters or windows or any number of items that come “bundled” within the contract renters sign when they choose which apartment they want to dwell in.

    Despite the fact that 18 states have already passed laws similar to what the FCC will now mandate, states have protested the FCC's presumption of jurisdiction in this matter.

  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee sends Law of the Sea Treaty to the Senate floor

    October 31, 2007 12:54 PM

    This morning, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to send the Law of the Sea Treaty to the Senate floor for ratification. The result was expected -- though still disappointing -- so now the real fight begins. The vote count was as follows:

    Yes votes
    Joseph Biden (D-Del.)
    Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.)
    John Kerry (D-Mass.)
    Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.)
    Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
    Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
    Barack Obama (D-Ill.)
    Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
    Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.)
    Robert Casey (D-Pa.)
    Jim Webb (D-Va.)
    Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)
    Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.)
    Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
    John Sununu (R-N.H.)
    George Voinovich (R-OH)
    Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

    No votes
    Norm Coleman (R-Minn.)
    Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.)
    David Vitter (R-La.)
    Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)

    CEI Director of Energy and Global Warming Policy Myron Ebell said:

    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote in favor of ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty is disappointing, but grassroots opposition is still building against the treaty. The strong statements against LOST in recent days by Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee are an indication that their campaigns have already felt this movement against the treaty. The opposition of the Senate's Republican leadership is another good indication. If Majority Leader Harry Reid brings LOST to the floor for a vote, it is going to be a real fight.

    For more on LOST, see here. (Thanks to Ben Lerner.)

  • Costly Sugar Subsidies to Increase, Impoverishing the Poor

    October 31, 2007 12:52 PM

    Congress is set to pass a bloated farm bill that will increase federal sugar subsidies, which have cost taxpayers billions of dollars, and prevent farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world from selling their sugar to the United States at low prices. Even The New York Times thinks President Bush is right to consider vetoing the bill.

    In a letter to the House Agriculture Committee joined by public interest and consumer groups, Fran Smith explained that the sugar subsidies will harm the environment, cause job losses, and increase food costs. And in National Review, she explains the bizarre workings of the sugar subsidy program, while in the Monthly Planet, she describes how the program costs thousands of American jobs in the candy manufacturing industry.

    In an earlier blog post, I explained how the farm bill as a whole is a big rip-off of American taxpayers, full of corporate welfare, criticized for contributing to pollution and obesity, and an obstacle to negotiating international trade deals that would create jobs in America for our exporters.

  • No Liability for Assisting in Fight Against Terrorism

    October 31, 2007 12:50 PM

    Trial lawyers have brought lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages against telephone companies for assisting federal antiterrorism surveillance programs. In today's Washington Post, Senator Jay Rockefeller, who is a critic of the Bush Administration, and usually sympathetic to the trial lawyers, explains why this is nevertheless fundamentally unfair to many telecommunications firms and an obstacle to important intelligence gathering.

    He advocates giving the telephone companies a limited form of immunity from suit, if they cooperated based on plausible assurances by the Justice Department that the surveillance was legal. Effectively, that would end a legal double standard that discriminates against the telephone companies.

    It's worth noting that the federal officials who created a surveillance program already enjoy "qualified immunity" against having to pay damages, even if a court later declares the program illegal, unless their belief that it was legal was plainly unreasonable. (They can still be ordered by a court to stop operating the program, but they can't be ordered to pay damages if the defense of qualified immunity applies). But private companies, unlike government officials, do not enjoy such "qualified immunity" against damages, exposing them to potentially huge liabilities and attorneys fees.

  • Are these the scariest movies?

    October 30, 2007 2:35 PM

    On the eve of All Hallow's Eve, the Boston Globe's list of the “Top 50 scariest movies of all time” is worth a look. Any you want to add — or subtract?

  • "Citizens" for Global Governance

    October 30, 2007 2:30 PM

    As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prepares to take up the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST; also known as UNCLOS, for United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) tomorrow, National Review Online editorializes against the treaty, in today's lead item, taking the Bush administration and the Navy to much-needed task for their misguided support.

    [E]nough has surely been written to demonstrate that the selling of UNCLOS is a white-collar crime that has the fingerprints of the Bush administration all over it. Yes, the White House has allies — the usual suspects in fact: the Democrats and some Republicans, the U.S. State Department, the NGOs of the Left, international civil servants, law professors seeking another treaty as pretext to read their own opinions into law, and above all what Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte has called “transnational progressives” (or, for short, Tranzis).

    So why is the Bush administration strongly urging passage of UNCLOS?

  • Government Won't Save You

    October 30, 2007 2:22 PM

    In Today's Washington Post, Cindy Skrzycki reports on Devra Davis's book The Secret History of the War on Cancer. According to Skrzycki, Davis asserts that “10 million cancer deaths could have been avoided over the past 30 years had it not been for industry opposition to good science and regulatory inaction by the U.S. government."

    Wow! There's the answer we all have been looking for! If we want to get rid of cancer, we simply need to cede more power to bureaucrats in governments around the world! Not really; if only it were that easy. Governments are as likely (actually much less likely!) to save us from cancer as they are likely produce world peace.

    That is, of course, a key problem with Davis's assumptions, but it isn't the only one. An epidemiologist by trade, Davis should do better with her science. According to the renowned biochemist Bruce Ames, Davis's "has gone completely overboard" and Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council Science on Science and Health rightly describes the book as "fringe." As Whelan explains, Davis would perform a much greater service if she focused educating people on known cancer risk factors such as poor diets and smoking.


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