Turbulence Ahead: Domestic Drone Debate Intensifies

National Journal has a new piece out today that highlights the continuing controversy over the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure thus far to publish a final rule governing the operation of drones in domestic airspace (FAA’s current unmanned aerial system (UAS) guidance can be found here). One thing the FAA will not be doing is wading into the commercial sector privacy debate over drones; it has punted that issue to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But what about federal agencies and their use of UASs?

Federal domestic UAS use has a checkered history.

In December 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued a report blasting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone program as waste:

  • The unmanned aircraft did not meeting the CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) goal of being airborne 16 hours a day, every day of the year; in FY 2013, the aircraft were airborne 22 percent of the anticipated number of hours.
  • Compared to CBP’s total number of apprehensions, OAM attributed relatively few to unmanned aircraft operations.
  • OAM could not demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.
  • OAM expected the unmanned aircraft would be able to respond to motion sensor alerts and thus reduce the need for USBP response, but the IG found few instances of this having occurred.

Hotel California: Teachers Union Edition

If a teacher opts out of her union, but the union refuses to hear it, did she really opt out?

Even where state lawmakers have passed “right-to-work” laws legally enabling teachers to opt out of paying union dues, the practical ability to opt out is far from guaranteed. In Michigan, for example–where dues can cost up to $640 a year–the teachers union surreptitiously created new bureaucratic hoops for teachers attempting to opt out.

In an apparent effort to make it even more difficult or even stop school employees from exercising their right under right-to-work to not pay union dues or fees, the state’s largest teachers union has quietly set up an obscure post office box address to which members must send the required opt-out paperwork. It’s P.O. Box 51 East Lansing, MI 48826.

Based on a letter the Michigan Education Association sent to members who had tried to get out, and discussions with some of them, resignation requests sent to the regular union headquarters address will not be honored.

An extensive search of the union’s websites found references to the post office box address on just one page of MEA’s main website, and on one affiliate union’s website. There is no record of this post office box address existing before this month. In the past, union members who wanted to opt out just had to send notification to the address of the MEA’s headquarters in East Lansing.

The MEA had previously restricted the union dues opt-out period to the month of August until a judge ruled that the restriction was illegal. As reported in Michigan Capitol Confidential, about 5,000 teachers left the MEA last year despite the obstacles.

Reviewing Carter’s Deregulatory Record

As health concerns for former President Carter mount, it’s nice to be able to look back on his time in the White House and see something remarkably positive. Carter’s deregulation of air travel, commercial trucking, rail shipping and oil have delivered substantial and ongoing dividends to Americans. In today’s Cato Daily Podcast (Subscribe: iTunes/RSS/CatoAudio for iOS), Peter Van Doren discusses how those policy changes occurred.

An e-mailer reminds me that Carter’s pen also sealed the deal ending the longstanding prohibition on home brewing of beer for personal consumption. Anyone who appreciates craft beer today owes a small thanks to Carter for getting the feds out of the way of the small-scale tinkerers who eventually became today’s craft beer entrepreneurs.

The Great Job-Creating Machine

As the Guardian recently reported, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, and the new jobs it has created have been of higher quality. Technology eliminated many difficult, tedious, and dangerous jobs, but this has been more than offset by a rise in the caring professions and in creative and knowledge-intensive jobs, resulting in a net increase in jobs.  The sectors to lose the most jobs have been agriculture and manufacturing, which are both difficult and dangerous, while work opportunities in medicine, education, welfare, and professional services have become more abundant. (For example, there are more teachers per student, improving student-teacher ratios, and there are also more physicians per person than in the past).

In 1980, almost a quarter of the world’s employment was still in agriculture. Now, only around 15% of the world’s workers are engaged in agricultural labor. Yet we are feeding more people, undernourishment is at an all-time low, and food is becoming less expensive. Technological advances liberated humanity from toiling in fields by mechanizing many processes and boosting productivity, allowing more food to be produced per hectare of land, and freeing hundreds of millions of people to pursue less grueling work.

The elimination of so many unsafe jobs in manufacturing and agriculture means fewer worker deaths. According to data from the International Labor Organization, from 2003 to 2013, the number of work fatalities in the world decreased by 61% (i.e., over 20,500 fewer deaths). This occurred even as the world population grew by over 700 million over the same time period. If the most dangerous thing you have to face at work is the threat of a paper cut, you quite possibly have technological innovation to thank for that.

Even if in the future robots steal some jobs, advancing technology will likely make several higher-quality jobs available for every job lost. As the Guardian article cited earlier says, technology has proven to be a “great job-creating machine,” eliminating toilsome work but bringing into existence more—and better—opportunities than it takes away.

But note that behind every machine, there lurks human ingenuity. As Matt Ridley wrote in his book The Rational Optimist:

It is my proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through innovation driven often by the market.

Learn more about what market-driven technological innovation has done to improve the state of humanity at HumanProgress.org.

Merely Saying “I Do” Multiple Times Shouldn’t Be a Crime

Saying “I do” and calling someone your spouse who legally isn’t shouldn’t be a crime, but it can be in Utah. While polygamy—being lawfully married to multiple people—isn’t legal in any state, due to its unique history, Utah has some of the strictest anti-bigamy laws in the country. Which probably makes starring in a reality TV show based on your plural marriage not the best idea for Utahns.

Nevertheless, TLC’s Sister Wives revolves around Kodi Brown, his four partners (Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn), and their 17 children. While Kodi is only legally married to one of women, he claims he is in a “spiritual union” with each of the others, and describes all four as his wives—and that puts the Browns on the wrong side of Utah’s bigamy law. The day after the show premiered in 2010, local authorities announced they were investigating the family.

Because the potential sentences are quite severe (five years for each of the women, and up to 20 years for Kodi), the Browns took preemptive action, filing a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah’s law. The district court agreed. In granting the Brown’s motion for summary judgment, the court held that because the law criminalizes “spiritual cohabitation” (arrangements where the participants claim to be part of multiple religious marriages, but make no attempt to obtain state recognition), it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and was “facially unconstitutional.” The state has appealed that ruling.

Together with First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh, Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to affirm the district court. Whether or not the Utah law violates the Browns’ religious liberty, it’s a clear affront to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

China’s REAL ID Program

China is implementing its “toughest-ever” mobile phone real-name registration system, according to the Want China Times. The effort seeks to get all remaining unregistered mobile phones associated with the true identities of their owners in the records of telecommunications firms. Those who do not register their phones will soon see their telecommunications restricted.

This policy will have wonderful security benefits. It will make identity fraud, anonymous communication, and various conspiracies much easier to detect and punish—including conspiracies to dissent from government policy.

The United States is a very different place from China—on the same tracking-and-control continuum. We have no official policy of registering phones to their owners, but in practice phone companies collect our Social Security numbers when we initiate service, they know our home addresses, and they have our credit card numbers. All of these are functional unique identifiers, and there is some evidence that the government can readily access data held by our telecommunications firms.

We have no national ID that would be used for phone registration, of course. The Department of Homeland Security says it will begin denying travel rights to people from states that do not comply with the REAL ID Act beginning in 2016.

On Health Care, Walker and Rubio Offer ObamaCare-Lite

In today’s Manchester Union-Leader, I explain the eerie resemblance that the health care plans advanced by presidential candidates Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) bear to ObamaCare:

The centerpiece of both “replace” plans is a refundable tax credit for health insurance. Yet such tax credits already exist, in Obamacare. Also like Obamacare, the Walker/Rubio tax credits would allow Washington to decide how much coverage you purchase, penalize you if you don’t buy that government-defined plan, and conceal massive redistribution of income under the rubric of tax cuts…

How would Walker and Rubio pay for their new spending? Would they keep Obamacare’s tax increases? Raise taxes elsewhere? Would they finance new health care spending by cutting existing health care programs? If so, chalk up yet another way their plans would resemble Obamacare.

I also provide an alternative for reformers who actually want better, more affordable, more secure health care.

Conservatives can offer a better “replace” plan that is politically feasible by expanding a bedrock conservative initiative: health savings accounts, or HSAs, which have already enabled 14.5 million Americans to save more than $28.4 billion for their medical expenses tax-free.

Expanding HSAs would give workers a $9 trillion effective tax cut, without cutting spending or increasing the deficit, and would drastically reduce government control over Americans’ health decisions. Most important, “large” HSAs would spur innovations that make health care better, cheaper, and more secure — particularly for the most vulnerable.

Conservatives need to get this right, lest they repeat the same mistake they made in 1993-94.

For decades, prominent conservatives advocated an individual mandate. The left then picked up the idea and gave us Obamacare. Before they once again fall into the same trap, conservatives should drop any support for the implicit mandate of health-insurance tax credits. Expanding HSAs is more compassionate and provides a direct route toward freedom and better health care.

For more on Large HSAs, see here, here, and here.

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