Two major FCC battles are merging into one big hybrid mess, says a study recently published by my colleagues at the American Consumer Institute. The interwoven policies could have devastating effects on consumers of both television and mobile data.
For decades, when it has come to negotiations between cable companies and broadcast networks, the FCC has tilted the playing field to favor the latter. If a broadcast network has undesirable programming, cable companies are often required to carry it anyway, under the FCC's "must carry" rules. But if a network has desirable programming, the network may avail itself of "retransmission consent" rules. This means that, instead of being forced to carry the programming, cable companies must gain permission from the network -- usually in return for significant compensation -- to air the content that is available to broadcast consumers for free. When broadcast networks have monopoly rights to highly desirable programming, such as major sporting events, they can charge incredibly high prices.
The proof is really in the numbers, with broadcasters' consent fees rising an average of 46 percent every year over the last six years and consumers suffering through numerous blackouts. But the new American Consumer Institute study, authored by the organization's president, Steve Pociask, brings to light an entirely new problem born from these old retransmission regulations: the spectrum crisis.
Local broadcasters use huge chunks of wireless spectrum to send their signals through the air. Decades ago -- before the spectrum crunch -- it was harmless to offer each station a sizable chunk of wireless space. As most households mounted antennae and grabbed their local over-the-air feeds, this setup only made sense. Now things are vastly different. Today, only 7 percent of households rely exclusively on "over-the-air" (broadcast) programming. The fact is that broadcasters are heavily reliant on the payments they receive from cable and satellite providers.
As the study concludes, because local broadcast networks are able to collect such hefty sums from their multichannel brethren, their incentive to sell off spectrum and join the ranks of cable networks is nearly nil. Broadcasters, essentially squatting on a goldmine of spectrum, would just as soon collect their government-enforced tolls from cable companies, rake in ad revenue from their sponsors (largely thanks to cable viewers), and let their spectrum rights become even more valuable as demand rises.
In the meantime, consumers are facing an impending pinch. By the end of last year, the number of wireless subscribers requiring spectrum rose to over 326 million. These customers' data use had grown by over 65 percent in a single year, to more than 1.5 trillion megabytes. Experts predict that, in some U.S. urban areas, the impending spectrum shortage will be reality by early 2014. Indeed, Deloitte predicts that we may fall short of needed spectrum by almost 50 percent of our current allotment. Most agree that, by the end of next year, Americans will need an additional 275 megahertz of spectrum to provide even adequate service.
Without a quick influx of new space, consumers face a scary reality: usage caps, throttled speeds, and shoddy service. Without government action to eliminate or rewrite retransmission consent regulations, cable companies won’t be the only ones feeling blackmailed by the networks of yesteryear.
Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.
It should've been a fresh start for Helen Seide. It was 2001, and she had finally escaped her abusive marriage. But as her relationship dissolved, her finances, too, collapsed like a house of cards: Seide, suddenly a single working parent with three young daughters, couldn't afford her rent and lost her apartment. A hotel became their temporary home as Seide struggled to support her family on her earnings as a hospital secretary. But the late shifts were hard to balance with her children's day care. Her paychecks shrank. They needed help.
After months in the hotel, followed by another two years in transitional housing, that help came. A voucher for rental assistance allowed her family to move to their own apartment in Montgomery County, Maryland -- a first step on their move out of poverty. Today, Seide is a proud homeowner with a stable job as a medical coder. Her oldest, now 17, is on track to attend college next year.
Yet, success stories like Seide's are rare. This is because many rental assistance programs are so focused on meeting the immediate needs of families that they may neglect longer-term goals -- like helping families transition out of the program. In some instances, program regulations even hinder the progress of residents -- discouraging them from earning a higher income or from building up the savings.
So, why was Seide's experience so different? Her rental assistance voucher was connected to a tiny, under-the-radar program with the potential to transform the American housing system: The Family Self-Sufficiency Program, or FSS. The FSS program has received only sporadic attention from Congress, but it's time policymakers took notice: After all, the FSS program is positioned to address one of the thorniest problems of our housing system -- one that's spawned in part by the very programs intended to support struggling families.
Understanding that problem means, first, understanding how rental assistance actually works: People getting assistance still have to pay rent -- but their rent is based on how much they earn. That means if their income goes up, so does their rent. Other public benefits are similarly connected to changes in income: food stamps, for example, have a "cliff"-like drop-off -- you reach the income threshold, and boom, your benefits are cut. And you can forget about a parachute landing -- because sometimes, reaching that threshold means you're ineligible for the program entirely.
That's a problem because for many people, reaching that income threshold hardly means they're financially secure: Most haven't saved what they'd need to cope in an emergency (such as an unexpected medical expense or a pricey car repair). Some economists believe this "benefits cliff" creates a disincentive to work, save, and strive for upward economic mobility.
The FSS program shifts this dynamic.
Here's how it works: It simultaneously addresses the "now" and the "later," providing assistance to get families stabilized and then connecting them to employment and education resources. Importantly, it also helps them save money to ensure that future bumps in the road don't throw them off-course. As FSS program participants pay more in rent (due to their increased earnings), they automatically build up a pool of savings in an escrow account. If they successfully graduate from the program, they can use the funds they've saved toward an item or investment of their choosing. Families in the Montgomery County FSS program save an average of $10,000 in escrow accounts, allowing them to buy a home, a car, or invest in education.
Despite this innovative design, the FSS program remains tiny: at its current funding level, it can only help a fraction of eligible families in the U.S. While researchers have evaluated individual programs (at the county level) and reported strong results, there's little data on the program at the national level. And little data gathered means that when Congress considers allocating more money to the program, their hands are tied; they struggle to justify new funding for a program with such a small sample size. But this reticence reflects a dangerous blind spot on housing policy: American rental assistance programs provide safe and affordable housing to millions, but the programs focus more on addressing immediate housing-related needs, and less on strategies to improve the long-term economic prospects of participants.
In order to support this program going forward, we need more information about how the best FSS programs have been able to get participants sustainably into living wage jobs and out of poverty. It's time for Congress to take a serious look at the FSS program and how this model could lift up thousands more struggling families.
And even in our polarized Congress, this shouldn't be a heavy political lift: The FSS program already has bipartisan political appeal -- it promotes flexibility and innovation at the local level, and recognizes the value of individual ingenuity, self-motivation and hard work. And it's rooted in a question that both Republicans and Democrats can agree is critical to answer: How can we ensure that all rental assistance participants have the same opportunity for success that Helen Seide had?
For more information on the FSS program, check out this new policy paper.
Hannah Emple is a policy analyst with the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation. This piece originally appeared in New America's Weekly Wonk newsletter.
Capital punishment is a moral abomination: That is the consensus among elites in developed countries. Everyday people, however, often disagree. So there's a lot riding on The Death of Punishment, a memoir and manifesto from New York Law School's Robert Blecker, one of the death penalty's leading advocates. It is an opportunity for an eloquent, informed, and passionate activist to defend the instincts that so many feel.
Blecker drives an important point home: Life without parole, at least as it exists in today's prisons, is simply not an appropriate punishment for the tiny, sadistic sliver of the criminal population he dubs the "worst of the worst." Unfortunately, however, Blecker's argument for giving these people death -- as opposed to harsher punishment in prison -- will not convince anyone who doesn't already agree with him. And conversely, he will not persuade aggressive death-penalty supporters that capital punishment should be strictly limited to the "worst of the worst." As a result, The Death of Punishment is a worthwhile but rarely satisfying read.
Death-penalty abolitionists often insist that spending life in prison is "worse than death" -- an argument that has never made much sense, given the extensive legal maneuvers condemned prisoners will go through to keep living behind bars instead of facing execution. But by actually visiting Death Row in numerous states and reporting the conditions there, Blecker completely destroys this notion.
Modern prisons are not designed to actually punish anyone -- the simple fact of being in prison, as opposed to being free outside, is supposed to be the punishment. Prison officials see their job as one of management; the goal is to keep things running safely and smoothly, and if that means giving everyone access to basketball courts and video games, so be it.
This approach may be the best one for prisoners who will eventually reenter society, and perhaps Blecker spends too little time considering the safety benefits it holds for staff. But much of what Blecker finds is truly shocking: In states without the death penalty, even the worst offenders can often work their way to lower-security facilities, with countless freedoms and perks, through good behavior. Once a man enters prison, the slate is wiped clean, and all that matters is how he behaves as an inmate.
And bizarrely, in prison after prison, Blecker finds that Death Row inmates are actually treated better than the rest. At Florida State Prison, for example, inmates who have been condemned to death, but not other prisoners, have a TV in each and every cell; Death Row inmates are also the only ones who are allowed physical contact with their visitors. Ohio's Death Row has a basketball league.
Thus we find Danny Rolling, a Florida serial killer who raped several of his victims, "relaxing, reading a book, a pillow tucked behind his head, reading glasses comfortably perched on his nose"; apparently Rolling also "played a mean game of volleyball there on the Row." And we see Steven Hayes, one of two men who raped and murdered a mother and her two daughters in Connecticut, fast asleep in his Death Row cell surrounded by a Hershey bar and various other junk foods from the prison commissary. After Hayes was sentenced, Connecticut repealed capital punishment -- technically only for future cases, but it is unlikely that Hayes will ever be put to death.
So, on a purely informational level, The Death of Punishment is eye-opening. It reveals a startling lack of justice even in supposedly backward, vengeful America. Blecker's suggestion for a new and improved life-without-parole option for juries -- tasteless food, strictly curtailed visitation rights, no recreation save basic exercise, etc. -- could provide a terrific starting point for a reform agenda.
The book will be inadequate, however, for those wanting a capital-punishment argument capable of convincing people whose thirst for payback is limited -- for example, the 57 percent of Boston residents who supported life without parole, instead of death, for Dzhokhar Tsaernev just six months after the terrorist set off a bomb at the city's marathon. Here's a summary of Blecker's case provided early in the book, and frankly it never gets much more nuanced than this, despite all sorts of citations to great philosophers and legal experts: "Killing eight students nurses in their townhouse or 6 million Jews in gas chambers made a man deserve to die. Not because I wanted it, not because most of us wanted it -- but because objectively, in fact, he deserved to die."
Blecker himself concedes, in a speech before an audience of German students recounted late in the volume, that when it comes to the urge to punish, "if you don't understand this, if you don't feel this, if your intuitions don't tell you this, I can never persuade you." His arguments are often framed as statements of what "we retributivists" believe, rather than as reasons one should be a "retributivist" to begin with.
And curiously, despite making such an emotion-driven case, Blecker provides little evidence that the death penalty confers real emotional benefits. Certainly, most of us feel a drive to see justice done -- it is difficult to read what many of these Death Row inmates did without wanting to see their throats slit, ever so slowly -- but what happens when we succumb to that urge and have someone killed? Do victims' families actually report feeling better? Do the rest of us really experience the "cleansing" Blecker writes of? These are largely empirical questions, and Blecker never really answers them.
Also missing is a detailed discussion of why people evolved to feel the urge for retribution, what purpose it serves -- a discussion that's needed to evaluate what we gain and lose by indulging or suppressing the urge in various ways. Statistical evidence about deterrence, for example, is hardly mentioned until an appendix, when Blecker says he knows prisoners who killed only in states that lacked the death penalty but concedes that the research is mixed.
The state's role in meting out appropriate punishments so that people don't take matters into their own hands is also barely explored. Blecker notes that elites in some European countries have banned the death penalty despite widespread popular support, but he doesn't explain what the consequences are when a state refuses to carry out the popular will in this way. Is there any sign that this is backfiring, or is the full extent of it simply that punishment isn't as severe in these countries as most people would like?
With Blecker's case for death resting on such a shaky foundation, it's even harder to accept his system for determining who gets the ultimate punishment and who is spared. He says that death, being the worst punishment we have, should be reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders.
But as he also notes, death isn't really the worst punishment possible -- we could torture the condemned before they die, for example. The Constitution and our morals preclude this possibility. So what we have here isn't a sliding scale that can be adjusted to fit to every crime perfectly, but rather a scale that is artificially capped at the death penalty -- some people may deserve to die, while others deserve to die quite painfully, but plain death is the most we can give to both groups. In this situation, why shouldn't we kill all of them, rather than reducing the punishment for run-of-the-mill murderers to preserve a distinction between them and the Hannibal Lecters?
Of course, drawing any sort of line between those who deserve death and those who don't is a purely subjective process. Blecker, for example, will happily sentence a man to die for raping, torturing, and killing a series of victims. But if a stickup artist shoves a loaded gun in a store clerk's face, and then intentionally shoots the clerk for trying to grab the gun, that doesn't qualify. And after getting to know Daryl Holton, a Tennessee Death Row inmate who murdered his four young children rather than letting them live in alleged squalor with his ex-wife, Blecker comes to suspect that this man isn't quite the "worst of the worst," either. Those of us who didn't develop a friendly rapport with Holton before his electrocution might be inclined to disagree.
In The Death of Punishment, we have the story of one man who's convinced that some people deserve to die -- and his experiences as he gets to know the prison system and the people housed in it. This makes for an informative and often gripping read, and Blecker's descriptions of life and leisure for brutal killers will move many to outrage. Yet the book never succeeds in its most difficult tasks: to explain how we benefit from putting criminals to death, and to explain why we should draw the line at the "worst of the worst."
More and more Americans are turning to the Internet for their shopping needs, especially during the busiest shopping season of the year. But as online shopping records are repeatedly broken, uncertainty about the taxes on goods and services purchased over the Internet could pose problems for the very consumers supplying that growth.
How important has shopping online become? If the start of the holiday season is any indication, online commerce has been a mainstream and convenient way for consumers to shop and save. Last week, online sales hit $3 billion just for Thanksgiving and Black Friday. On Cyber Monday, online sales hit a record nearing $2 billion. And it's not just this year -- in 2012, Cyber Monday sales were 30 percent higher than in 2011.
Currently, some of those online purchases -- those classified as digital goods or services, such as MP3s, smartphone apps, and streaming movies -- could be subject to multiple taxes from different state or local governments. For example, if someone living in New York decides to purchase a movie online during their layover in Michigan while traveling for Thanksgiving, they could theoretically be subject to taxes by three different jurisdictions -- their home state, the state they are in, and the state where the company selling the movie has a server.
There's another tax that might be on the horizon, too: A tax on Internet access. A federal moratorium on such taxes, meant to help drive the adoption of high-speed Internet, expires in 2014. Allowing taxes on Internet access -- which could exceed 20 percent if made consistent with other telecom tax rates -- could be a significant deterrent to getting more Americans online.
Fortunately, Congress is considering legislation to address these two critical tax issues. A bill to prevent duplicative and pyramid taxation of digital goods has been introduced. And a bill permanently extending the tax moratorium has wide bipartisan support in a time of partisan rancor.
Passing these bills would protect consumers while growing the economy. That would be a much-needed win-win for Congress and a positive thing for consumers who shop online.
Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.
Former inmate Veronica Barnes had three years left to serve in federal prison when she found out in January 2011 that her husband John was dying of pancreatic cancer. Doctors said it was inoperable. They gave him less than a year to live.
Barnes worried who would look after her children, who were four and five years old at the time. A social worker suggested she apply for compassionate release, a program that lets federal inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who face "extraordinary and compelling circumstances" get out of prison early.
Barnes, 32, seemed to fit most of the criteria. She was in prison on a nonviolent drug charge, and there was no one to care for her children when her husband died.
Barnes had been living with her family in Yarnell, Ariz. and working at the local market when she was arrested in 2008. She plead guilty to intent to distribute methamphetamine, and was sentenced to six years in prison. At the federal prison camp in Phoenix, Arizona, she saw her children every week, completed a parenting class, took college courses, and graduated from a drug rehab program.
The assistant U.S. attorney who tried Barnes' case said she believed it was "a sympathetic case," and that Barnes was unlikely to reoffend. The warden at the prison camp in Phoenix supported freeing Barnes.
"Based on the ages of the children and the death of their father, the children are dealing with a doubly traumatic situation since their mother is not able to render support or care," the warden wrote. "I am in favor of recommending Ms. Barnes for compassionate release so she may reunite with her young children during this difficult time."
A year and three months after submitting her first application -- and nearly eight months after her husband died -- Barnes received a letter from the Bureau of Prisons' central office. Her request had been denied.
"All that time I spent waiting for their response, my children were living with strangers," Barnes said.
Officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons central office decided it was in the best interest of Barnes' two children to stay with a local couple in Yarnell who Barnes' pastor had found to care for the kids.
"Review of Ms. Barnes' past history raises concern as to whether she will be able to sustain the stresses of sole parenting and employment while remaining crime-free," wrote Kathleen Kenney, general counsel and assistant director of the Bureau of Prisons.
The government has long been criticized for rarely granting compassionate release. This August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would try to change that by expanding criteria for who can apply.
Under the new guidelines, compassionate release can be granted not just to prisoners who have terminal illnesses, but also to those with debilitating conditions. Prisoners who need to serve as caregivers for family members may now also seek reductions in sentencing. And for the first time, elderly federal inmates who aren't necessarily dying or incapacitated can apply to be let out early.
Holder touted the compassionate release initiative as one way to cut down on the "astonishing" federal prison population, which has grown by nearly 800 percent since 1980.
But even if the changes enable more inmates to apply for compassionate release, prison officials still have almost total discretion over who is approved.
A federal prison's warden, as well as the Bureau of Prisons' regional director and central office must sign off on an inmate's application before it is passed on to a judge. Any of those officials can reject applications for a number of reasons, from a perceived risk of recidivism to concern for what's best for a prisoner's child, as in Barnes' case. There is no process for inmates to appeal those decisions in court.
Many advocates say they expect eligible inmates will remain behind bars despite the changes. "I don't believe it's going to change at all," said lawyer Marc Seitles, whose client was denied release despite terminal cancer. "It's still the same people making decisions."
In September, Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels said he predicted expanding eligibility would result in the "release of some non-violent offenders, although we estimate the impact will be modest." (The agency declined to make Samuels available for comment to ProPublica.)
As of October 29, The Bureau of Prisons had approved and passed along 50 compassionate release requests to judges this year. That's up from 39 in 2012 and 29 in 2011.
It's impossible to know if the overall rate of approval has increased, as the federal Bureau of Prisons hasn't released the number of inmates who have applied.
The Bureau says it recently started to track inmate requests, after an Inspector General report earlier this year excoriated the department for failing to do so. The report also found most inmates didn't even know the program existed.
The expansion of compassionate release was motivated in part by the rising number of sick and elderly inmates incarcerated in the U.S. As of 2011, there were over 26,000 inmates over 65 in state and federal custody.
And as the elderly population in prison grows, so do their medical bills. Housing an inmate in a prison medical center costs taxpayers nearly $60,000 a year -- more than twice the cost of housing an inmate in general population.
Many lawyers and prisoner advocates have said the "jailers are acting as judges" by rejecting most compassionate release cases without ever passing them on to the courts for a final decision.
"The Bureau of Prisons should be letting judges have the opportunity to decide every time extraordinary and compelling reasons come to their attention, and [they are] not doing that," said federal public defender Steve Sady, who has written extensively on the issue and represented clients requesting early release. "We believe that, under the statute, the sentence is for the judge to decide."
Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross said in an emailed statement that "Congress gave the [Bureau of Prisons] authority" to decide which inmates should be granted release.
"Review includes deliberation on the most important factor, ensuring that an inmate's release would not pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community," he said. "This must be considered before any request is submitted to a court." (Read their full statement.)
Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says prison officials are ill-equipped to make those kinds of decisions. Prison officials' "job is to keep people locked up. Identifying people who should no longer be incarcerated is just not what they do," she said.
This is especially true in cases like Barnes', Price said, in which prison officials decide complicated legal questions such as whether an inmate is fit to parent. "You would never trust your child's guardianship issues to a bureaucrat in the Bureau of Prisons," she said. "They have no competence or expertise in this."
Ross said the Bureau of Prisons has implemented new training programs to better prepare wardens and other prison officials to make these decisions.
Some inmates have tried to take their cases directly to court, but most judges say their hands are tied without the prison bureau's approval.
Federal inmate and lawyer Lynne Stewart tried to seek compassionate release from a federal judge after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Stewart is serving a 10-year sentence in a Texas federal prison for serving as a messenger for her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of terrorism charges in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Prison officials denied Stewart's request in June, saying she hadn't proven she had less than 18 months to live. So Stewart took her case to court, hoping a federal judge would overrule the prisons' decision.
"There is no doubt that Lynne is dying," said Stewart's husband, Ralph Poynter. "She can't breath, the cancer has taken over both lungs." Stewart "sounds like she's running" when they talk on the phone, Poynter said.
The judge wrote that he had no choice but to deny her request. "The court would give prompt and sympathetic consideration to any motion for compassionate release," the judge wrote, "but it is for the [Bureau of Prisons] to make that motion in the first place."
Stewart's lawyer Jill Shellow was "disappointed" the judge refused to weigh in on Stewart's case. "She's not at risk of recidivism," Shellow said. "I remain convinced that it is inappropriate for the Bureau of Prisons to be making the decisions."
Prisoner advocates at Human Rights Watch and other organizations have proposed allowing inmates to go before a judge to appeal rejections.
"Unless there's an institutional change or a criteria that they have to follow, this will never change," Seitles said.
While Barnes was not granted early release, the Bureau of Prisons did give her a one-day furlough. She had to choose between visiting her husband on his deathbed or attending his funeral.
Barnes decided to see her husband while he was still alive. "It's very hard to wake up in the morning and know that that's the last time you're going to see him," she said. "My kids were all excited that mommy's home. I had to explain that I was just there for a couple hours."
Barnes completed her sentence in June, and has since been a single parent to her two children. She's returned to her job at the market, and is taking classes at a nearby community college. But remaining behind bars as her husband died has had a lasting impact.
"The relationship with my children will never be repaired," she said. "I wasn't there when their father was dying."
This piece originally appeared at ProPublica.
The government states -- see also page 25 here -- that "gender equality" is one reason it is requiring employers to provide insurance that includes contraception with no copay. The basic idea is straightforward: Only women take birth-control pills; therefore women are footing the bill for extra expenses simply because they're women, and the government should step in. Countless pundits have similarly advanced the case that it's "unfair" for women to have to pay for birth control.
It's certainly true that only women take birth-control pills -- and that, as the government points out, overall health-care expenses are considerably higher for women. But it's less obvious why the expenses associated with birth control should be considered in the context of health care. Birth control is "health care" in the sense of coming from a doctor, but it's not health care in the sense of being designed to detect, prevent, or address some sort of ailment. Pregnancy is not a disease, and sex is something people may choose to engage in or not; birth-control pills are merely a product couples use so that they can have sex without becoming pregnant.
Arguably, for the purposes of "gender equality," the expenses of birth control are best considered in the context of those couples' relationships. Are men really free-riding on the birth-control expenditures of women?
Overall, there are three types of women who might want to use birth control: married women, women in sexual non-married relationships, and women who are single but sexually active. In none of these cases is the evidence overwhelming that women are being treated unfairly relative to men.
In the case of married women, the woman using birth control almost always shares a bank account with the man involved, or at least has come to some sort of detailed arrangement with him about which party pays for what. In fact, not only do married men share in the cost of birth control, but they also typically share in the overall higher cost of their wives' health care.
Similarly, women in sexual relationships have every opportunity to speak to their partners about finances -- instead of splitting every single dating-related expense down the middle, some couples may have arrangements that are unfair to either the man or the woman, but it's not clear why it serves the interest of "gender equality" for the government to step in when it comes to birth control but not other expenses.
What we are left with, then, are women who are having sex with men but don't feel comfortable talking to them about finances. Some conservatives might say this is not a government-mandate-caliber problem. But even these kinds of sexual encounters come with various kinds of non-gender-neutral expenses besides birth control. Men often pay for meals and drinks; women usually spend more time and money preparing to go out. Since the pill doesn't address STDs, there's also the question of who pays for condoms. Again, why are we singling out birth-control pills, available for $9 at Walmart, as the expense to gender-equalize?
The government makes more roundabout arguments, too: For example, without an insurance plan that fully covers birth control, some women might choose to go without it but keep having sex, placing themselves "at a competitive disadvantage in the workforce due to their inability to decide for themselves if and when to bear children." It's a clever argument, if you don't mind recasting grossly irresponsible behavior as gender-bias victimhood.
There are all sorts of reasons we might make birth control more accessible, and all sorts of debates we can have about forcing employers to include it in health plans. But "gender equality" is a bit of a stretch.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen
Last week I posted a chart showing the age distribution of minimum-wage earners. Today, Jared Bernstein has a chart in The New York Times showing how the low-wage workforce has changed in the last few decades:
One of the enduring questions in American federalism is whether the federal government should treat all states identically or link that treatment to performance measures. This question takes on new dimensions as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develops new source performance standards (NSPS) for existing power plants with substantial greenhouse gas emissions.
More than three years after the collapse of serious Congressional negotiations over a cap-and-trade system for carbon, this new step represents application of a durable policy tool, the multi-generational Clean Air Act, to greenhouse gases. This program is often portrayed as a national tool applied uniformly across the nation. But many provisions of the Clean Air Act allow for creative experiments in federalism, most notably through state implementation plans that states negotiate with EPA headquarters or its regional offices. In these negotiations, states can seek not only considerable latitude in overseeing enforcement but also experimentation with flexible compliance options.
So this means that there is tremendous precedent for EPA to offer incentives to those states that take early and constructive steps of their own. Think about the last decade in American climate change policy.
On the one hand, a fair number of states have taken unilateral steps to develop policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not just in the near term but over a period of time. Some of these policies focus on the very industrial facilities to be addressed under the NSPS provisions. In the Northeast, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) involves nine states with a carbon cap-and-trade system for electric utilities, with an emissions cap that was lowered by more than 30 percent last year to increase its impact. California has launched its own system and is about to begin emissions trading next January with a Canadian province, Quebec, while also expanding negotiations with other Western states on possible collaboration. Other states have taken other steps to reduce emissions in this sector.
EPA could reward this behavior and designate these state programs as equivalent to the same emission reduction goals under the Clean Air Act. That would entail some flexible interpretation but would be sensitive to the fact that a fair number of states found ways to develop market-based emissions systems while one Congress after another has floundered.
Of course, this opens up the question of differential treatment. There is another set of states that not only has eschewed unilateral climate policy but also has taken numerous steps to thwart federal policy implementation. Think Texas. In that case, lead elected officials have routinely refused to allow state staff to cooperate with federal officials, regularly denounce EPA with federalism rhetoric reminiscent of the mid-19th Century, and continually lob litigation grenades at this process.
This may be good politics, whether it involves Governor Rick Perry's attempt to play to a national base as he contemplates a return to the presidential campaign stage in 2016 or Attorney General Greg Abbott's attempt to build partisan support in his bid to replace Perry next year. And they clearly have a point that the current EPA strategy is not the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, though those sorts of options are off the table in Congress for the indefinite future.
Gina McCarthy steps into this situation as a relatively new EPA Administrator but one exceptionally well-versed in both the operation of the Clean Air Act and early-state carbon programs. Her path to the EPA leadership post ran through two states that are now part of the RGGI system and included a term as lead official for the Clean Air Act. It is rare to hear a federal agency head in any recent administration who speaks so clearly, knowledgeably, and enthusiastically about issues of federalism and then can articulate a strong interest in engaging the states in federal policy development.
This suggests an intriguing moment whereby states may well begin to advance their case for flexible treatment based not on their federalism rhetoric but their actual performance. Not all states operate at the Lake Wobegon level, warranting designation as "above average" and thereby uniform treatment. Perhaps the newest chapter in the rather remarkable odyssey of the Clean Air Act should take this into account, possibly further stimulating state, local, and regional innovation at a time when Washington seems less and less capable of anything of consequence.
Barry Rabe is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings Institution's FixGov blog.
The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on a "dangerous" medical product, but it's not a drug or a diet or a surgery.
On Nov. 22, the agency issued a warning letter to 23andMe.com, a DNA analysis company. For just $99, 23andMe will send you a little vial to collect your saliva. Once you've mailed it back, they will run a battery of genetic tests and provide you with information about your genetic history, relatives, ancestral origins and how your genes affect your health.
23andMe has been a fast-growing service, building attention through an aggressive television, radio and podcast marketing campaign. But you won't be hearing the company talk about its services for at least a little while since, per the FDA letter, "23andMe must immediately discontinue marketing the [personal genome service] until such time as it receives FDA marketing authorization for the device."
The company's personal genome service doesn't sequence your entire genome. It looks instead at specific regions of your genes that tend to vary across the population and have known consequences. Once they've figured out which versions of these single-nucleotide polymorphisms you've got, they tell you what the academic research has found. Maybe one of your mutations is associated with Himalayan ancestry (a fun fact about your family) or a higher sensitivity to blood-thinners like Warfarin (an important piece of data for your doctor).
The FDA is worried about the latter kind of data. In their letter, the regulators write:
For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.
In other words, learning about your risk for breast cancer through an imperfect test might lead you to get unnecessary surgery or ignore warning signs.
Mammograms are still legal, by the way.
Banning 23andMe because it gives patients data they might misuse is roughly analogous to shutting down WebMD or Wikipedia. While 23andMe can tell me that some sequences in my genes are associated with a greater risk of breast cancer, WebMD can tell me that my persistent cough is associated with a cold or pneumonia or lung cancer. Either way, I won't end up on chemo or under a surgeon's knife without going through the usual medical gatekeepers. I bring my suspicions to a doctor and the expert makes the final call about whether to alter my treatment.
If genetic assays for consumers are causing problems, it is not because they're revealing perilous information about the patient, but because they're exposing a gap in the way the medical establishment is prepared to use and explain genetic and statistical data. That's the ailment the FDA should be addressing.
This piece orginally appeared on the R Street Institute's blog.
NPR has some charts illustrating the demographics. Here's one that covers age:
Illustration: Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute
It sounds like a movie scene set in the future: a criminal desperate for a gun doesn't have to go far to get one. Rather than stealing a weapon or buying one on the black market, he goes to his computer and hits "print." One by one, the pieces of a gun take shape. These he quickly assembles and, in the next moment, he's on the street, armed and dangerous.
If this sounds like dystopian fiction, you've missed the news cycle of the past week where commentators and policymakers have been sounding off about the danger of guns made with 3D printing technology. Some have called them a "boon for criminals," while others, policymakers included, have suggested that keeping these weapons "off the streets" should be a key priority.
First came the Liberator: a low-power, single-shot, mostly plastic weapon created on a $1,700 3D printer with $25 in materials. The Liberator's record is mixed: some have successfully fired nine rounds, others have misfired or even exploded. On the heels of the Liberator came a full-metal printed gun. Modeled on the famous 1911 pistol, it fired 600 large-caliber rounds. These weapons have media and federal authorities concerned that obtaining firearms may soon be a simple process.
But this oversells the danger posed by 3D guns. To understand why, we have to understand the average criminal. While every Hollywood criminal may be a seasoned gunman, real criminals often have no idea how to operate a firearm. Even criminals with guns often don't know how to load a weapon or select the proper ammunition. This will make 3D guns, which must be assembled and loaded after being printed, even more challenging to use than normal guns.
And before using a 3D weapon, criminals will have to face an even bigger challenge: finding one. Criminals commonly get their weapons through theft, corrupt firearm retailers, and black markets; 3D weapons are likely to impact none of these channels.
Annual gun theft estimates range from approximately 200,000 to more than half a million, from a national stock of more than 310 million weapons. Against this existing store, the limited number of 3D weapons will not significantly increase opportunities for theft, especially compared with the steady stream of conventionally made arms rolling off production lines.
Corrupt firearms dealers may supply criminals, though the scope of this problem is unclear. Some research suggests that dealers are only minor actors in the criminal weapons supply, while other reports suggest that they may divert a significant number of weapons to criminals. Either way, with access to a low-cost supply of conventional weapons, there is little need for dealers to offer 3D guns, either through pre-sale diversion or through exploitation of the laxer sales standards at gun shows.
Black markets -- underground transactions often facilitated by gangs or social networks -- are another source of criminal guns. Gangs in particular can supply weapons but already have access to guns of better quality than 3D pieces. Gangs also have less incentive to sell: firearms violence attracts police attention and diminishes lucrative drug market sales whose revenue can be 20 to 50 times more lucrative than gun sales.
Operating as an independent black-market dealer is difficult: selling $25 Liberators for $50, a 100 percent markup, would require 68 sales just to break even on the cost of the printer. The average number of sales a black-market broker makes in a Chicago neighborhood? Sixteen. Moreover, dealing in bulk increases the risk of police detection as there must be more sales, each of which could be to a police informant. The 3D gun is simply not suited to the needs of illegal markets, and until that changes, don't expect to see them on the black market.
None of this is to say that 3D guns don't pose real homeland security dangers. For terrorists, the limited tactical capabilities of 3D weapons, especially plastic ones, may be less important than their ability to create fear and uncertainty, infiltrate secure locations, or force the development of expensive new security protocols. A "click, print, and fire" crime wave, however, will likely remain science fiction for a very long time.
Sam Bieler is a research assistant in the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute. This piece originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog.
Last week legislation was introduced in the Senate and House to create federally funded universal pre-k for 4-year-olds. The details of the legislation are largely consistent with the White House proposal, called Preschool for All, that was announced in the president's state of the union address in February.
The rhetoric around the introduction of the legislation includes the by now entirely predictable and thoroughly misleading appeal to the overwhelming research evidence supporting such an investment. For example, Senator Harkin, the lead author of the Senate version of the legislation, declared that "Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success."
By way of background, I'm a developmental psychologist by training and spent the majority of my career designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children. For instance, I directed a national Head Start Quality Research Center; created a program, Dialogic Reading (which is a widely used and effective intervention for enhancing the language development and book knowledge of young children from low-income families); and authored an assessment tool, the Get Ready to Read Screen, that has become a staple of early intervention program evaluation. My point is that I care about early childhood education and believe it is important -- as witnessed by how I spent my professional life for 30 years.
My career since 2001 has largely been about advancing evidence-based education, which is the endeavor of collecting and using the best possible evidence to support policy and practice in education. Since the president's state of the union address, I've been writing that the evidence is decidedly mixed on the impact of the type of preschool investments the president has called for and that we now see in the legislation introduced in Congress. It may seem in the pieces I've written that I'm wearing only my evidence-based education hat. But in fact if you're an advocate of strengthening early childhood programs, as I am, you also need to pay careful attention to the evidence -- all of it. Poor children deserve effective programs, not just programs that are well-intentioned.
Unfortunately, supporters of Preschool for All, including some academics who are way out in front of what the evidence says and know it, have turned a blind eye to the mixed and conflicting nature of research findings on the impact of pre-k for four-year-olds. Instead, they highlight positive long term outcomes of two boutique programs from 40-50 years ago that served a couple of hundred children. And they appeal to recent research with serious methodological flaws that purports to demonstrate that district preschool programs in places such as Tulsa and the Abbott districts in New Jersey are effective. Ignored, or explained away, are the results from the National Head Start Impact Study (a large randomized trial), which found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who had vs. had not attended Head Start as four-year-olds. They also ignore research showing negative impacts on children who receive child care supported through the federal child development block grant program, as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had , at best, only small impacts on later academic achievement.
Here I want to draw your attention to a newly released study of Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK). TN‐VPK is a full day pre-k program for four‐year‐olds from low-income families. It has quality standards that are high and in keeping with those proposed by the Obama administration under Preschool for All, including the requirement of a licensed teacher in each classroom, no more than 10 children per adult, and an approved and appropriate curriculum.
The study, conducted by a stellar team of researchers at Vanderbilt, began in 2009. It is a randomized trial (the gold standard for evaluating program impacts) involving about 3,000 four-year-olds whose parents had applied for their admission to oversubscribed TN-VPK programs. A lottery was used to select those to whom an offer of admission was made. Those winning the lottery constitute the intervention group. Those losing the lottery constitute the control group. Only about a quarter of children in the control group found their way into other center-based programs such as Head Start or private pre-k, so the study compares groups that are very different in their levels of access to early childhood education.
An intensively studied subset of about 1,100 children drawn from both groups was directly tested on cognitive skills, such as knowledge of vocabulary, at the beginning and end of the pre-k year and at the end of kindergarten and first grade. These same children were rated by teachers at the end of first grade on a number of non-cognitive characteristics, such as the ability to play well with other children and work independently. Outcomes for the full sample of 3,000 children were only available with respect to data routinely collected by schools and part of state administrative records, such as days of school attendance and special education status. I focus here on the findings for the intensively study subset of participants.
The research team previously reported positive impacts on cognitive measures favoring the TN-VPK participants at the end of the pre-k year. The recently released findings are with respect to how TN-VPK participation affects children's later performance in kindergarten and first grade. The whole justification for investing in pre-k is that it provides long-term benefits, so these follow-up data are critically important.
The first figure below illustrates the impact of TN-VPK participation on cognitive abilities at the end of first grade (kindergarten findings are very similar). The impacts are presented as effect sizes (which represent the differences between groups in standard deviation units) for eight measured outcomes across the domains of literacy, language, and math. An effect size that is larger than zero favors the participants in the TN-VPK whereas a negative effect size favors the control group. As the figure shows, seven of the outcomes are negative, with one (quantitative concepts) being statistically significant. In other words, the group that experienced the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though three-quarters of the children in the control group had no experience as four-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.
What about social/emotional skills and dispositions as rated by teachers? The following figure presents those results, again at the end of first grade. None of the differences is statistically significant. Four of the seven signs are negative, meaning that the control group scored better than the pre-k group.
Finally, what about differences on routinely collected school records? Here the results are mixed. Participants in the TN-VPK were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4 percent to 6 percent). In contrast, children served by TN-VPK were more likely to have received school-based special education services than children in the control group (14 percent to 9 percent for the full sample -- reported results aren't separated for the intensively studied sub sample). There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups on absences from school or disciplinary actions.
What do these findings mean? The authors of the study hold out hope that the positive finding on kindergarten retentions means that the TN-VPK had a positive effect on children's social/emotional development, which will lead to long term positive outcomes like those that were found in the famous Perry Preschool Project (in which, for example, participants were less likely than nonparticipants to have had encounters with the criminal justice system as adults). This seems to me to be grasping at straws, given the lack of any differences among participants and non-participants in teacher rated social/emotional outcomes, and given other research showing no association between kindergarten retentions and later school performance. The authors of the study also refer frequently to the prevalence of fade-out of cognitive gains in other research on the impact of preschool programs. But there is a big difference between the fade-out of group differences on academic and cognitive outcomes somewhere in late elementary school or middle school, which is the pattern in some previous research, versus gains that don't last even until the end of kindergarten, which is the finding in the present research and the National Head Start Impact Study.
I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs. This is the first large scale randomized trial of a present-day state pre-k program. Its methodology soundly trumps the quasi-experimental approaches that have heretofore been the only source of data on which to infer the impact of these programs. And its results align almost perfectly with those of the Head Start Impact Study, the only other large randomized trial that examines the longitudinal effects of having attended a public pre-k program. Based on what we have learned from these studies, the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families. I wish this weren't so, but facts are stubborn things. Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.
Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst is both a senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the director of its Brown Center on Education Policy. This piece originally appeared on the Brown Center Chalkboard blog.
Over on RealClearMarkets, warning against a bill that would require broadcast radio stations to pay the performers of the songs they play -- the convoluted current policies require payment for composers but not performers, as I explained in August -- Derek Khanna writes:
The operative question here is: does creating a new right to copyright, one that was very alien to that of our founding fathers, promote the progress of the useful arts as the Constitution requires? This is an empirical question, one that can be argued and resolved largely through data, but the onus is on the record labels to prove their case.
Rather than show a need, existing studies shows only the contrary. There has never been a single study demonstrating harm to artists from broadcast radio. In fact, quite the opposite. According to a study produced for the National Association of Broadcasters:
"There is a direct correlation between the number of ‘spins' (plays on free, local radio) and the sales of albums or singles. ... It is this promotion ... that drives record sales."
While this is only one study, and is funded by the broadcasters themselves, it is a significant empirical analysis based upon statistical data. The report concludes, "If a new performance fee were enacted, stations could reduce the amount of music airplay, change formats and even cease to operate, resulting in the loss of much of this promotional benefit." If this 100-page economic regression analysis based report is inaccurate, then why hasn't any empirical study demonstrated contrary findings since 1933?
For the sake of argument, let's assume that the broadcaster-funded study is accurate: Radio play is not merely correlated with record sales, but actually spurs more sales than it substitutes for. Does it follow that allowing radio stations to play copyrighted songs without paying performers doesn't "harm" artists, labels, and by extension the production and promotion of music?
No. It shows only that uncompensated radio play benefits artists relative to a situation in which radio does not exist at all. It says nothing about a situation in which radio play occurs, but only once an agreement has been made with copyright holders. In other words, the analysis completely ignores the profit opportunity that's lost when radio stations are allowed to free-ride on the investments of performers and labels.
Consider this analogy: Because Walmart's profit margin is above 3 percent, it wouldn't "harm" Walmart to require it to give a 3 percent discount to certain preferred costumers (say, the very poor) -- at least relative to a situation in which those customers never enter the store. The discount might serve as good PR for Walmart, or attract some customers who stay after leaving the group that's eligible for the discount, so you could even say that these customers still benefit the company.
And yet it would be ludicrous to assert that forcing Walmart to give away its products at cost to certain consumers wouldn't harm Walmart or its ability to improve its business. The relevant counterfactual isn't a world in which these customers don't exist, but a world in which they don't receive a special discount by law. It's the same with radio stations and copyrighted performances.
At any rate, the best way to tell the market price of radio play isn't to do a "regression analysis based report," but instead to let radio stations and copyright holders negotiate. If radio play is so valuable as promotion that copyright holders will fight for it, the price for content will actually be negative (though under payola laws any payments from rights holders to radio stations will need to be disclosed on the air). If, by contrast, radio stations find that they make the best money by being extremely picky about the music they play, they will be willing to pay for the best material.
At the very least, basic economics would suggest that the broadcasters' study is wrong about one of two things. Either it overstates the value of radio play, or it overhypes the possibility that copyright holders would charge rates so high that radio stations would close or play much less music. Say what you will about the music industry, but it's unlikely to deliberately reduce its own profit margins. And if some performers did charge too much, others would swoop in to compete with better deals.
It's also worth taking a closer look at Khanna's assertion about the Founders. Obviously they could not have envisioned radio or its ramifications for intellectual property -- and the historical record about the Copyright Clause is notoriously spotty -- but what the Constitution empowers Congress to do is this:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
The whole purpose of a music station is to play copyrighted songs in their entirety and then profit from selling ads around them. It would seem that this could not happen without performers' permission if their copyrights were indeed "exclusive." It would also seem that whatever profits can be had via performance royalties on broadcast radio would promote the progress of science and useful arts just as much as the profits earned in other ways secured by copyright (including radio royalties for composers and non-broadcast radio royalties for performers).
To be sure, all of this is an argument about radio royalties in general, not about the Free Market Royalty Act in particular. As Khanna notes, the act doesn't achieve its "free market" ideal -- rather than protecting performers' right to decide whether their work is played on the radio and then letting the negotiations proceed from there, it empowers the recording-industry group SoundExchange to negotiate on behalf of artists (who can then renegotiate different deals if they so choose).
So, this bill isn't necessarily what I'd come up with, either. But it does seek to address a real problem -- a situation in which artists' performances are used, without permission or compensation, as a major selling point for an entire industry.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen
Basically: Being smart helps. So do rich parents. You can see a similar graph using measures of motivation if you click through to his post above.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen