Don’t Ground “Uber in the Sky”

Last year, a company called Flytenow was poised to revolutionize air travel by allowing private pilots already going to a destination to share their costs with would-be travelers—kind of like a college rideshare bulletin board, but on the Internet. The service would pair pilots with potential passengers, for a small fee no greater than the cost of fuel. It’s been called “Uber in the sky.” But in December, Flytenow shut down after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the Federal Aviation Administration’s determination that the service must obtain the highest levels of licensing, akin to what major airlines and their pilots secure.

The FAA decided that these pilots were not simple private individuals sharing cost, but were “common carriers,” subject to heightened liability and expensive professional licensing. Common carriers—like buses, trains, and commercial airlines—have been treated specially in the law since medieval times, and they differ from Flytenow’s online bulletin board.

As Flytenow seeks review in the Supreme Court, Cato Institute, joined by TechFreedom, has filed an amicus brief in support.

First, “common carriage” is a term defined by common law, stretching back to way before the founding of the FAA—indeed hundreds of years before the Wright Brothers—and the FAA’s interpretation here directly contravenes that established meaning. One glaring consistency across the last 600 years of common law is that the carrier must hold itself out for indiscriminate public hire. Flytenow pilots, as a matter of right, can turn down any passenger for any reason (or no reason) and thus are by definition not common carriers. This alone is reason enough to reverse the court’s decision and overturn the FAA ruling.

But second, and more basically, the D.C. Circuit granted very broad deference to the FAA’s interpretation of what constitutes common carriage, despite that being a term defined at common law. Courts often defer to an agency’s expertise in a particular subject matter—which essentially means that the agency’s decision is usually upheld under some “deference” framework. But according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Texas Gas Transmission Corp. v. Shell Oil Co. (1960), when an agency interprets the common law, a reviewing court shouldn’t simply defer to the agency’s interpretation.

Enough! America Must Distance Itself from Its Rogue Turkish Ally

The recent abortive military coup in Turkey has led not to a restoration of democracy and the rule of law in that country, but to an acceleration of already worrisome trends toward a dictatorship with Islamist overtones.  When the would-be junta made its play for power, the Obama administration quickly expressed support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s beleaguered government, as did most of Turkey’s NATO partners.  When the coup attempt collapsed, leaders of those governments breathed a sigh of relief that the Alliance did not have to confront the embarrassment (or worse) of a member state governed by a military dictatorship.

That sense of relief was short lived.  In a matter of days, Erdogan purged not only hundreds of high-ranking military officers, (a step for which there was at least reasonable justification), he went after other institutions that had long impeded his attempts at increasingly autocratic rule.  Nearly 3,000 judges were removed and arrested.  He even fired 21,000 teachers from the country’s school system.  The extent and speed of the systematic purge confirms that Erdogan simply used the attempted coup as a pretext for a plan long in place.  The United States now confronts the problem of a NATO ally that is a dictatorship in all but name.

The frustrations with Turkey should have been building for years, if not decades.  After all, U.S. officials were under pressure to look the other way as Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and continued to illegally occupy the northern portion of that country ever since.  Washington offered no more than feeble protests when Ankara established the puppet Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories and moved in tens of thousands of settlers from the Turkish mainland.  Such indifference makes U.S. expressions of outrage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea seem more than a little hypocritical.

New Math: Anti-Common Core = Anti-Hispanic?

In an act of extreme tangent tying, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson just penned an op-ed linking Donald Trump’s wall-building immigration stance to his attacks on the Common Core national curriculum standards. The message Richardson may be trying to send: bigots don’t want Hispanics in the country, or able to access “high academic standards” when they’re here.

I’ll let others debate Trump’s motives, but I can speak for myself—and probably the vast majority of Core opponents—that none of my opposition to the Core is based on anti-Hispanic sentiment or a desire to keep anyone down. It is rooted only in the concerns I have constantly expressed: having a single, federally driven set of standards would stifle innovation; makes little sense considering that all children are unique individuals; and has no meaningful research backing. Others believe that the Core simply is not a good enough set of standards.

Richardson offers no evidence to refute any of the highly substantive objections that have been made for years and have helped render the Core a largely bipartisan pariah. He just pronounces that the standards “equip students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential to success in the 21st-century economy.” Then he attacks Trump again.

Far too often Core defenders have ignored powerful, important objections—and dodged serious debate—in favor of caricaturing Core opponents. Awkwardly tying Core opposition to anti-Hispanic animus seems to be more of the same.

These Democrats Should Visit the Navy Yard in Philadelphia

The Pentagon awaits authority from Congress to repurpose military bases. Fears of the potentially harmfully economic effects on local communities when bases close largely explain Congress’s intransigence. The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process was created in the late 1980s to allow closures to occur without forcing individual members to vote for them. It was a dodge, to be sure, but it worked: in five successive rounds, the military was able to eliminate some of its excess infrastructure and overhead.

But the problem hasn’t gone away. The Pentagon estimates that its physical footprint will exceed its needs by more than 20 percent by 2019.

A few Democrats in Congress are trying to help.

“We need to provide the Department of Defense flexibility to find savings and efficiencies wherever it can in order to support our warfighters,” explained Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “That is especially true now, as Congress continues to strain the military by funding it through short-term budget agreements. We should not be making the military cut training and supplies while at the same time refusing to let DOD save money that we know is not being used productively.”

Smith has a point. But base reuse is about much more than allowing the military to allocate its resources wisely. Transitioning bases to non-military uses allows local communities to do so, too.

While the Democrats are in Philadelphia this week for their nominating convention, they should take a trip to visit one of the bases closed during the BRAC process – now known as The Navy Yard. POLITICO has a great profile of the place here. I wrote about it in this new book.

As I explain over at The Skeptics:

the C in BRAC is misleading. Bases aren’t closed. Properly managed, and with a little bit of luck, most former military facilities are repurposed for other chiefly nonmilitary pursuits. And some make the transition quite quickly.

Of the fifteen instances of defense conversion that I’ve studied so far, Philadelphia’s Navy Yard is one of the most impressive….

[…]

Philadelphia has a lot of things going for it, but I hope city officials make a point of bragging to visitors from the nation’s capital this week about what has happened to their former military base. They might even give them a tour. If they do, it could weaken opposition in Congress to another round of base closures, which is so desperately needed. Indeed, the opponents might come around to the view that the opening of a nearby base is precisely the boost that a flagging local economy needs.

Here’s an idea. Six other Democrats co-sponsored Rep. Smith’s latest bill that would allow a new BRAC: Reps. Sam Farr (Calif.), Susan Davis (Calif.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Madeleine Bordallo (Guam), Jackie Speier (Calif.) and Beto O’Rourke (Texas). I’ll bet that a few of them will be in Philly.

Revising Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”

Does the American Dream exist? Are poor but highly skilled individuals able to achieve their full potential? These questions are at the heart of recent episodes of Malcom Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History.

In “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” Gladwell examines the idea of “capitalization,” or how well America makes use of its human potential. Americans typically believe people are able to climb the ladder to success through hard work and determination, but Gladwell uses the story of one smart, low-income student to express doubts about American meritocracy.

“Carlos” is a bright but low-income student in Los Angeles, who secured a spot at an elite private school thanks to entertainment lawyer Eric Eisner’s YES program. The episode is a stark reminder that low-income students—even the most talented ones—face large barriers to success. Gladwell calls Carlos’ journey a “one in a million shot.” He identifies two large obstacles that smart, low-income students must overcome, but fails to discuss the best solution to these problems: school choice. The public education system traps students like Carlos in underperforming schools that Gladwell likens to concentration camps, but choice policies could help more poor students like Carlos access good schools.

The first barrier to success is a lack of advocates for talented, low-income students. But must it take an Eric Eisner to discover such kids and help them capitalize on their potential? The underlying assumption is that advocates will not be parents or teachers, but only rare, outside forces.

Really? Most parents want the best for their children, and work hard to give them opportunities for success. The problem may well be that wealthier families can access private institutions or choose expensive homes zoned for high-quality public schools, while low-income families are relegated to cheap addresses assigning them to subpar schools. Low-income parents, as Gladwell and others imply, are not necessarily uninformed or uncaring. They just lack the resources of wealthier families.

School choice policies help to give parents those resources. In The School Choice Journey, Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf show that given choices, low-income parents transition from passive clients to active consumers, seeking out information on options for their children.

Government Unions and Dysfunctional Government

Why is government so often dysfunctional? Why is it, in contrast to the voluntary sector of society, so often slow, inefficient, wasteful, and counterproductive? Peter Schuck explored the question at length recently in his book Why Government Fails So Often. Chris Edwards offers a shorter and more libertarian analysis in a recent Cato policy study. But maybe these two new stories from the past few days shed some light on the question, first from Washington, D.C.:

Metro officials fired a senior mechanic just weeks after the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident last year, alleging that he failed to properly inspect a tunnel fan, falsified an inspection report, and later lied about it to investigators.

But now, the largest union representing Metro workers is fighting the transit agency to have the mechanic reinstated.

Seyoum Haile, a 13-year Metro veteran, was terminated one month after the January 2015 incident that resulted in the death of a passenger — but arbitrators said he should be suspended instead, and now the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is suing to get him back on the job.

Meanwhile, in Miami:

National condemnation has been swift today after video showed Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black behavioral tech trying to help an autistic patient, holding his arms in the air before a North Miami Police officer shoots him. But Miami’s two most prominent police union chiefs have now leaped to the officer’s defense. 

John Rivera, who leads the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, says the officer was actually trying to protect Kinsey because he believed the autistic man, who was holding a toy truck, had a gun — but then he accidentally shot Kinsey instead. 

For more on the consequences of government employee unions, see here and here.

Tim Kaine Scored Poorly on Cato Report

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has named Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. Kaine was governor of Virginia from January 2006 to January 2010. I assessed Kaine on Cato’s fiscal report card in 2008, and he received a low grade of “D.”

I found:

Governor Kaine has campaigned vigorously to raise taxes and fees to fund higher transportation spending. In 2007, Kaine helped pass a large revenue package that included tax and fee increases, higher penalties for driving infractions, and the creation of regional taxing authorities within Virginia. The Virginia Supreme Court struck down the unelected tax authorities, and citizens hated the new driver penalties so much that they were repealed. Kaine supported a few tax cuts in 2007, including an increase in the bottom threshold of the individual income tax and a repeal of the estate tax. But in 2008, he is promoting an even bigger transportation plan that would increase taxes and fees by $1.1 billion annually, and he is advocating higher state borrowing to fund education and transportation. On spending, Kaine promoted a big increase in his first budget, but has favored greater restraint since then.

In Kaine’s first year, general fund spending jumped a remarkable 17 percent. But spending was flat the second year, and then declined 14 percent during Kaine’s final two years as the economy entered recession. Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Bart Hinkle gives Kaine credit for the spending cuts, but notes, “it’s clear that Kaine would much rather have preferred to balance the state budget by raising taxes.”

That was probably true of many governors at the time facing declining revenues from the sour economy. But thanks to balanced budget requirements, general fund spending across the 50 states was cut 9 percent those two years that Kaine was cutting.

Politifact says that Kaine tried unsuccessfully to raise taxes by $4 billion, which is a lot of money for a mid-sized state. Researching Kaine two and half years into his term, I included net proposed tax increases of $1.1 billion in my report. I included only one of his proposed transportation funding packages because I didn’t want to double count. Politifact may have included multiple transportation packages in its tally. Also, my report did not cover Kaine’s $1.9 billion proposed income tax increase in 2009, which the Washington Post discusses here.

Hinkle calls Kaine an “affable ideologue.” That’s a good description of Trump running mate Mike Pence as well, whose fiscal ideology of spending restraint and tax cutting earned him an “A” from Cato.