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  • Who Dares Question the Mighty Oz?

    April 24, 2015 11:41 AM

    Yesterday, Dr. Mehmet Oz launched his “counter attack” on several doctors who sent a letter last week to the dean of Columbia University’s medical department complaining about controversial positions and advice that Oz has offered on his show. Oz, who holds faculty and administrative positions at Columbia, exclaimed that he “will not be silenced” by his critics, casting the issue as an attack on his freedom of speech. In an article for Time magazine, Oz stated:

    The dean politely reinforced that the academic tradition of all institutions protects freedom of speech for their faculty, and I assumed the matter was over…. I know I have irritated some potential allies. No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. We will not be silenced. We’re not going anywhere.

    Yet no one is trying to deprive Oz of his right to free speech. The doctors listed on the letter are simply exercising their own right to free speech—and that includes speaking truth to the powerful Oz. They shined a light on Oz’s often questionable, TV-publicized, health advice for good reasons, as many others have done so hereherehereherehereherehere… and the list could go on and on.

    And apparently, shining a light on Oz’s questionable approaches did some good. It prompted eight of Dr. Oz’s colleagues from Columbia University to speak out as well in a USA Today commentary. These doctors note:

    We are members of the Columbia faculty who recognize that the Dr. Oz Show performs a public service by bringing alternative therapies which are generally under-researched and under-regulated into the public forum. However, a 2014 report in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) reported that less than half of the recommendations on his show are based on at least somewhat believable evidence. This report raises concerns that Dr. Oz's presentations of anecdotal therapies as "miracle cures" occur in the absence of what we see as obligatory discussions of conflicts of interest, possible side-effects and evidence-based medicine (or lack thereof). Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms regarding metabolism game changers. Irrespective of the underlying motives, this unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships.

    And last spring, members of Congress also attempted to rein in Oz when they invited him to testify on Capitol Hill about his claims related to “miracle” weight loss supplements. And apparently, it worked to some degree. On his show yesterday, Oz says that he’s backed away from making claims about miracle supplements. In addition, after the rebuke by his Columbia colleagues, he’s even said he regrets comments he has made about such supplements. That’s progress, but there’s more to do.

    While Oz thanked his colleagues at Columbia for speaking up, he attacked the doctors on the first letter because he says they have an “agenda.” And rather than address their arguments, he attacked them personally on his show. Apparently, it’s inconceivable to Oz and his crew that people can disagree with them based on informed, moral personal views.  

    In particular, he focused on the work of CEI friend and scholar Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution. Dr. Miller’s writings and research on the topic of genetically engineered food are among the most informed and scholarly in the world (he was also the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology), and his positions are humanitarian. Rather than attack, it’s time for Oz to take a closer look at this issue and reconsider his position, as he has with supplements.

    Genetic engineering allows researchers to precisely modify plant genes in a process that is far more precise and safer than cross-breeding plants. Using GM, researchers have been able to add vitamin A to rice to reduce vitamin-A deficiency, a major cause of blindness and death, particularly among children, in parts of the world were rice is the staple of the diet, although anti-GM activists have fought this “golden rice.” Scientists also use genetic engineering to make food production easier and more affordable, which is essential to feeding a growing world population.

    Dr. Oz says he’s ambivalent about such foods, although his shows are laced with fear-generating suggestions about these technologies, and his “experts” are mostly anti-biotechnology activists. He did, however, allow one biotech apple farmer to appear on his show last week to offer a little balance in that one segment. 

  • CEI Submits Comments to FAA on Small Drone Certification and Operations Proposed Rules

    April 24, 2015 11:18 AM

    Today, I submitted comments to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on behalf of CEI on its notice of proposed rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) certification and operations. We make three main points.

    First, we question why the FAA is using its case-by-case exemption authority as the basis for this rulemaking, as opposed to the actual rulemaking section of the same law that Congress passed in 2012. This was the last FAA reauthorization and Congress included a subtitle on unmanned aircraft systems. Section 332, among other things, ordered the FAA to promulgate final rules integrating sUAS into the National Airspace System. But instead of relying on Section 332, as Congress required, the FAA in this proceeding is relying on Section 333, which granted the FAA authority to approve sUAS operations on a case-by-case basis until it had promulgated the sUAS integration rules mandated by Section 332. There are several potential explanations for why the FAA is relying on Section 333, none of them good, but we ask the FAA to explain its reasoning.

  • Let Amtrak Pay Its Own Way

    April 24, 2015 10:10 AM

    Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute has a great blog post outlining the various ills besetting America’s government-subsidized passenger rail carrier Amtrak. The gist of O’Toole’s argument is that although both federal and state governments contribute large sums of money to keep Amtrak afloat, potential riders have not been nearly as enthusiastic. A recent National Journal article does cite Amtrak’s ridership as increasing 50 percent in the last fifteen years, but O’Toole points out that the increase was largely driven by a simultaneous increase in gas prices. Amtrak’s new riders aren’t somehow more attuned to taking passenger trains than they were before, they’re simply responding to market pricing and the laws of supply and demand.

    If the federal government revoked its latest $1.4 billion annual subsidy, Amtrak probably would not have even seen that 50 percent increase. O’Toole reports that in 2012, Amtrak fares averaged about 33.9 cents per mile, while travel by air and automobile averaged 13.8 and 25 cents, respectively. Taking into account these factors, as well as user costs and subsidies, O’Toole estimates that Amtrak costs about four times as much as flying and nearly twice as much as taking a car. These figures, along with the fact that Amtrak’s share of total passenger travel in 2012 was around 0.14 percent, demonstrate that demand for passenger rail in America can hardly be called robust.

    Even if greater demand for passenger rail did exist, the federal government would face the odd paradox of running a profitable industry that could probably be better handled by competition among private firms. Passenger trains already have at their disposal all the revenue they should ever need: fares and onboard sales. Why take money from hundreds of millions of people to finance the travel of only a few? Congress would do the nation a favor by phasing out funding for Amtrak, saving us all money in the process.

  • Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Derailed

    April 23, 2015 5:17 PM

    Today we’ve learned again that bureaucrats and their enormous kingdoms come before consumer welfare. 

    The collapse of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger merely because of the interference of government, not because of actual market rejection, illustrates the overwhelming power of the modern state in undermining the advance of communications technologies and services specifically in this instance, and of free competitive enterprise generally. 

    The proposed transaction was first announced well over a year ago, and as is now the unfortunate and disruptive norm, the parties had to await the verdicts of bureaucracies rather than set immediately about serving consumer markets. Now, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Communications Commission, whose edicts change the direction of entire industries with the slightest gesture, have decided to derail the deal.  

    These bureaucrats have decided on our behalf that the merger wouldn’t help us. What they have really decided is that no competitor will need to react to the Comcast-TWC merger, and so competitors have been awarded a government-granted reprieve from the pressures of competition. Over and over, antitrust routinely harms consumers far more than any ordinary business transaction like this can ever do.

    Sometimes mergers work, sometimes they don’t—like the failed AOL-Time Warner merger. But such matters should be settled in the marketplace, not by overlords in Washington who, if we are the slightest bit honest, are the real wielders of unchecked monopoly power over all industries, not just one sector like this.  

    For an earlier discussion of this merger, here’s a column of mine in Forbes. “Why Organized Conservative Opposition To The Comcast Time Warner Deal Misfires.”

    On the folly of antitrust regulation (and it is regulation), see my formal comments to the Federal Trade Commission’s Antitrust Modernization Commission

  • Theatrical Union Ignores Membership Vote to End Volunteering Exemption

    April 23, 2015 1:33 PM

    If a vote goes against you, ignore it.

    That is what a theatrical union did this week, when it announced it would ditch a longstanding plan that allowed actors to volunteer at small theaters.

    Actors’ Equity Association, which represents 50,000 actors and stage managers, recently held a non-binding referendum on whether to abandon a minimum wage exemption for theaters with less than 100 seats. Members voted against ending the exemption, known as the 99 Seat Theater Plan, by about a two-to-one margin. Granted, the referendum was non-binding, but it does show a union’s leadership going blatantly against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of its membership. 

    Some actors working in small theaters had asked for greater pay, reports Southern California Public Radio (SCPR), but Actors’ Equity’s proposed solution is about as heavy-handed a way to address the issue as could be. “I believe that there is an inequality inside L.A. theater and I think it should be fixed,” actor Ramon De Ocampo told SCPR. “But I don’t think it should be fixed with a sledgehammer. We need to scalpel it away to get that payment.”

    The sledgehammer metaphor is especially apt considering that many actors approach performing in small theaters as a job, but as a means to gain experience and sharpen their skills. As The New York Times reports:

    [H]undreds of union actors working in this city’s distinctive and thriving small theater scene are barely paid for their work. And, in an unusual twist to America’s economic fairness debates, many of them say they are O.K. with that.

    “None of us is here to make money,” Lynn Odell said recently as she rehearsed a science-fiction comedy at Theater of Note, a 42-seat theater that operates in a former auto-glass repair shop in Hollywood. “We are here for the experience.”

    The willingness of Los Angeles actors to perform for a pittance, hoping to hone their craft and, maybe, to catch the eye of an agent or manager, is now at the heart of an extraordinary rift in the union representing theater actors, and has opened a new front in the nation’s battle over the minimum wage.

    Ironically, a prominent defender the 99 Seat Theater Plan is Tim Robbins, an avowedly liberal Hollywood actor who happens to run a small theater.  

  • Protecting the Earth Isn’t Just Government Work

    April 22, 2015 6:04 PM

    This April will mark the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. Since 1970, countless people around the world have used the day to celebrate the beauty and majesty of the natural world and develop strategies for safeguarding those values.

    For a long time, environmental protection policies in the United States have tended overwhelmingly in the direction of greater government involvement—more rules and restrictions, larger budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, and more land brought under federal control. As the mandate to control more and more of the nation’s forests, ranges, rivers, and lakes has expanded, the agencies responsible—and the taxpayers who foot the bill—have shown the strain.

    Since the early 20th century, practically no land under federal control has passed into private hands. We can see the real-world consequences in the federal forests. For decades, some environmental groups have successfully fought the adoption of sound forest management policies, often opposing the harvesting of any timber—even dead or diseased trees. As a result, those lands have been plagued by insect infestation, disease, and catastrophic wildfires. Because of political pressure, federal land managers ignored risks that private forest owners have always understood.

    Fortunately, we have other options for channeling the enthusiasm for environmental preservation we see at Earth Day celebrations each year. Increasing private stewardship of our natural resources is an excellent tool for addressing that challenge.

    As more people are coming to realize, we do not have to direct all our conservation goals through the political process, where we can only hope that the politicians we elect will make the right choices. Rather, we can join together with other like-minded individuals to accomplish the same goals. No campaign contributions required!

  • Is Earth Day on Lenin's Birthday a Coincidence?

    April 22, 2015 1:09 PM

    It may be sheer coincidence, but it’s all too fitting that the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, would occur on V.I. Lenin’s 100th birthday, given that most of the modern environmentalist movement grew out of the far left student movement of the 1960s. In that milieu, it wasn’t rare to see people brandishing and citing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book as a source of wisdom. And many in the anti-war movement accused the capitalist chemical companies of growing rich by producing napalm and Agent Orange to drop on the people and forests of Viet Nam.

    Another popular book of the time was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which claimed chemical companies were profiting by poisoning the entire planet with DDT. The new environmentalist movement had found its “Little Green Book.”

    And I was there.

    I would periodically drive down in my Volkswagen from New Jersey to D.C. for various gatherings and marches. There was always a small libertarian contingent with the black-and-gold anarcho-capitalist flags at most of the major anti-war marches.

    Most of the news I got on the student movement came from my friend the late Wilson A. Clark, Jr., a maverick Misesian, Randian, Schumacherite, small-is-beautiful libertarian and author of Energy for Survival and Energy, Vulnerability and War. Wilson later went to work for Gov. Jerry Brown as his alternative energy guru. He supported solar and wind power for libertarian reasons—so neither the state nor Con-Ed could pull the plug on you, and you could live free off the national grid (much like Karl Hess, Sr. and the recently retired Rep. Roscoe Bartlett). Unfortunately, Wilson died in an auto accident on January 30, 1983 at age 36, as he swerved to avoid a deer. 

    Wilson told me that the greatest coup was holding Earth Day on Lenin’s Birthday and that most of the environmental movement’s leaders still didn’t get it. You can find endless discussions on how April 22 was selected. It had to be in the spring. It had to be during spring break, when most college kids were free, and when there were no exams. On and on.

    While it is entirely possible, and indeed probable, that Gaylord Nelson and other establishment greens did not deliberately pick Lenin’s birthday to celebrate Earth Day, I believe the young anti-capitalist students knew precisely what they were doing in selecting April 22. Was it sheer coincidence they would select Lenin’s 100th birthday—out of 365 days in the year—to celebrate the first Earth Day? I find it hard to believe.

  • How Capitalism Created the Modern Family

    April 22, 2015 1:07 PM

    Prof. Steve Horwitz of St. Lawrence University has a fascinating article up at MarketWatch, in which he argues that many of the major changes in family structure and gender roles we have seen over time are primarily a result of market forces and increasing prosperity. Serendipitously, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Jerry Muller, presented by the Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, in which he made many of the same connections.

    The Industrial Revolution, for example, created new opportunities for wage labor outside the home and family farm, so all sorts of poor people—men, women, and children—ended up taking those jobs to contribute to the household’s income. As real wages rose with increased productivity, more men were able to become sole breadwinners for their entire family, and children and women were able to return to the domestic sphere. Many of those children went to school rather than doing any physical work, and women generally assumed the role of what many people today consider the “traditional” homemaker.

    But in many ways that tradition was short-lived. As an array of labor-saving devices for the home proliferated in the early 20th Century, women were again seeking career opportunities outside the home. Horwitz points out that this has led, for example, to more women working with young children, a trend that itself has been made possible because women, in recent decades, have been having fewer children on average, making paid daycare a more affordable option.

    I suspect Horwitz and Muller might disagree on the second half of Horwitz’s MarketWatch article that applies the same analysis to sexual orientation and individual expression, but the overall theory—that “social” trends have a lot more to do with economic effects than many historians and sociologists acknowledge—remains a compelling one.

  • Balanced Budgets and Regulatory Budgets

    April 22, 2015 1:05 PM

    The Joint House-Senate Conference Meeting on the federal budget has begun. Chairman Tom Price of Georgia remarked:

    Completing a budget is one of Congress’ core legislative responsibilities. It helps ensure we are embracing our Constitutional power of the purse and legislating in an orderly manner....we must remember that a budget is more than just a set of numbers. It is a reflection of our priorities and vision for how we can achieve real results and move our country in the direction of greater opportunity, economic growth and a safer and more secure nation – one where Americans have the best chance of achieving their dreams for the future. 

    The basic plan purports to just barely balance the budget within 10 years. We’ll have a $6 trillion annual fiscal budget under Obama in 2025—but it’ll be at least $5 trillion under Republicans. Under Obama’s plan, we’re going to spend $49.3 trillion between 2016 and 2025; Republicans, $43.1 trillion. 

    The initial Republican plan released in February promised to get rid of Obamacare. However, Republicans are running away from that despite pre-election promises and can be counted on this summer to advance legislation embracing fundamental premises of Obamacare (even keeping “kids” on the parents’ policy until age 26 by force. Take a look at Los Angeles Times: “Obamacare Repeal Falls Off Republicans's To-Do List as Law Takes Hold.”)

    This issue alone assures no balanced budget in 10 years, as does the inevitable one-upsmanship among Republicans to spend more on defense.

    For future entrepreneurial progressives, the summer 2015 cave-in on Obamacare will remove key barriers to single-payer for some future Congress when the mixed approach fails. If Republicans are choosing government controls, then they are choosing government controls.

  • Google Now Opposes State Automated Vehicle Legislation?

    April 22, 2015 11:54 AM

    Back in 2012, I warned that California’s bill (now law) that would explicitly recognize the legality of automated vehicles and order state regulators to develop a detailed safety framework would tie the hands of innovators. In those days, Google was the chief proponent of such legislation, with California Gov. Jerry Brown signing the bill into law (sponsored by now-Secretary of State Alex Padilla) at Google’s headquarters, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin looking on.

    That 2012 law spawned a series of chaotic regulatory actions at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which has still failed to implement the required licensing and operations regulations and which also imposed regulations that forced Google to dial back its efforts to produce and test a fully automated vehicle on public roads. Ironically, these now-forbidden operations were likely completely legal before California enacted its autonomous vehicle law in 2012.

    Fortunately, Google appears to have learned from its mistakes and is now opposing a similar piece of legislation in Texas. The technology giant isn’t explaining its about-face in the Longhorn State, but the automakers’ chief lobby, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was more candid:

    The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

    “We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

    Gage said many of his group’s members are testing autonomous vehicle technology, but he could not say whether any are doing so on Texas roads or highways. Such testing would likely be legal here, as Texas law does not address self-driving vehicles, according to state officials. Google drove its self-driving car on Texas roads during a trip to Austin to promote the technology in 2013.

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