Milan Is the Latest Olympic Loser

The headlines say that Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, have been awarded the 2026 Winter Olympics. Ten years from now Italians may look back on today as a disaster. 

More and more cities are realizing that Olympic games are glamorous but not economically sound. I made that point four years ago when Boston withdrew its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics:

The [Boston] critics knew something that the Olympic enthusiasts tried to forget: Megaprojects like the Olympics are enormously expensive, always over budget, and disruptive. They leave cities with unused stadiums and other waste.

E.M. Swift, who covered the Olympics for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years, wrote on the Cognoscenti blog a few years ago that Olympic budgets “always soar.”

“Montreal is the poster child for cost overruns, running a whopping 796 percent over budget in 1976, accumulating a deficit that took 30 years to repay. In 1996 the Atlanta Games came in 147 percent over budget. Sydney was 90 percent over its projected budget in 2000. And the 
Athens Games cost $12.8 billion, 60 percent over what the government projected.”

Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, the world’s leading expert on megaprojects, and his co-author Allison Stewart found that Olympic Games differ from other such large projects in two ways: They always exceed their budgets, and the cost overruns are significantly larger than other megaprojects. Adjusted for inflation, the average cost overrun for an Olympics is 179 percent.

After the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, sports columnist Nancy Armour wrote in USA Today, “The legacy of the Rio Olympics is a farce.” She continued:

The closing ceremony was six months ago Tuesday, and already several of the venues are abandoned and falling apart. The Olympic Park is a ghost town, the lights have been turned off at the Maracana and the athlete village sits empty…. the billions that were wasted, the venues that so quickly became white elephants, the crippling bills for a city and country already struggling to make ends meet…

Columnist Anne Applebaum predicted in 2014 that future Olympics would likely be held only in “authoritarian countries where the voters’ views will not be taken into account” — such as the two bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Her prediction seemed to be borne out a year later when the people of Boston revolted against the city’s establishment – business leaders, construction companies, university presidents, the mayor, etc. – and forced the city to withdraw its bid for the 2024 summer games. Since then, however, Applebaum’s faith in democracy seems to have been too high, as upcoming games will be held in Tokyo, Paris, Milan, and Los Angeles (along with China).

In Cato Policy Report, Flyvbjerg examined “the ‘iron law of megaprojects’: over budget, over time, over and over again.” The Olympics are glamorous, and nobody does glamour better than Milan, but they’re not the road to prosperity. 

Supreme Court Does Well to Strike Down Trademark-Office Censorship

In a replay of the Slants case Matal v. Tam from two years ago, the Supreme Court was right to strike down the ban on “scandalous” or “immoral” trademarks because government officials shouldn’t be making those kinds of values judgments. While the outcome was only ever in doubt becuase of an an unusually contentious oral argument, the majority, in a typically evocative opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, did well to show how similar the cases were.

This case illustrates a bedrock principle of First Amendment law. As Kagan puts it, “The government may not discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions it conveys.” The problem here is that “the Lanham Act [the federal trademark statute] allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety.” You could register anti-drug marks (“Say No to Drugs”) but not pro-drug ones “Marijuana Cola.” You could register pro-religion marks (“Praise the Lord”) but not religious marks for commercial products (“Agnus Dei” safes or “Madonna” wine). That just won’t fly. 

While three justices (John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor), adopting the government’s argument, would’ve narrowed the statute to ban only obscene or vulgar epithets, that would be an improper use of the judicial power. As Kagan says, “To cut the statute off where the Government urges is not to interpret the statute Congress enacted, but to fashion a new one.” As Justice Samuel Alito writes in his concurrence, “we are not legislators and cannot substitute a new statute for the one now in force.”

Moreover, Justice Kagan drops a footnote to point out that the majority may yet be open to a new statute “limited to lewd, sexually explicit, and profane marks.” Alito echoes that in suggesting to Congress a statute focusing on “vulgar terms that play no real part in the expression of ideas.”

I’m not so sure about that, but regardless local time, place, and manner restrictions are still available to cover, say, a billboard with a swear word outside a school. There are also viewpoint-neutral trademark rules that may take care of whatever problems the justices are thinking about. In any event, as Cato has long argued, it’s simply not the government’s role to tell people what’s “scandalous” – whether in the trademark context or anywhere else. 

See here for more background and to read the “funny brief” that we filed in this case.

Senator Sanders’ Not So Great Free College Proposal

Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes free college for all and the cancellation of all student debt.

Americans have watched the price of four-year college rise faster than inflation for several decades. This phenomenon is complex and can be attributed to several factors. Two of the most important factors are:

  1. the rising cost of education and campus amenities (keeping technology current, expanding physical education facilities, more administrative positions, improved meal plans, and so on).
  2. students’ increased willingness and ability to pay higher prices, owing to easy access to government subsidies.

The first point is enabled by the second, and Sen. Sanders’ proposal will simply exacerbate the problem.

President Reagan’s then-Secretary of Education William Bennett famously articulated the second point in a 1987 New York Times op-ed, saying: “If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.”

Free college and debt forgiveness are the motherlode of aid to colleges and universities, which under Sen. Sanders’ plan will fuel rising costs that will be redirected from students to taxpayers. Massive federal education funding will join other unsustainable “third-rail” entitlement programs and grow, adding to federal spending, the deficit, and debt.

If student loans are forgiven, those who borrowed—in some cases irresponsibly—are rewarded, whereas those who paid for their education by making sacrifices are punished. If anything, this would cause resentment and may discourage future responsible financial behavior. If Americans believe that debt is something that can magically be eliminated by government, why not maximize mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt?

And worst of all, education quality and accountability will suffer. We’ve seen this play out for decades in free public K-12 schools, where per-pupil cost rises continuously and student performance stagnates or falls. Underperforming schools remain open and continue to provide inadequate education to many children.

Emergency Exit Strategy

His brand is crisis, so it can be hard to keep abreast of the various calamities President Trump stumbles into or deliberately courts. Now that tensions with Iran seem to have momentarily cooled, another recent episode of Trumpian brinksmanship, closer to home, deserves some attention before we lurch forward into new dangers. 

As you’ve surely heard, but may have already forgotten amid the fog of near-war, three weeks ago, President Trump threatened to declare yet another national emergency at the southern border. If Mexico didn’t sufficiently crack down on cross-border migration, Trump warned, he’d use “the authorities granted to me by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act” to hammer our third largest trading partner—and U.S. consumers—with a series of escalating tariffs on Mexican goods, rising to 25 percent across the board. 

Fortunately, on June 7, three days before the deadline he’d set, President Trump called off the trade war. But, Trump warned, he “can always go back” to raising tariffs if he’s not happy.

The notion that the president can, with the stroke of a pen, upend peaceful trade relations and implement a massive tax hike ought to sound the alarm about Trump’s expansive view of presidential emergency powers. Are they as vast as the president claims, and, if so, what can Congress do to rein them in? 

As I argued in Reason magazine recently, our latest Imperial President has aggressively exploited the powers he inherited, but hasn’t been much of an innovator in terms of devising genuinely new schemes for the expansion of executive power. Trump’s use of emergency authorities is the glaring exception to that pattern, the key area in which the “CEO president” has been menacingly entrepreneurial.

We saw this first in February, when President Trump declared a national emergency in order to “build the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border. The statute Trump invoked, 10 USC § 2808, allows the president to divert funds to “military construction projects” supporting the use of U.S. armed forces in a military emergency. It had been used only twice before, by George H.W. Bush in the run-up to the Gulf War, and by his son in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—the sort of circumstances it was clearly designed to address. Though past presidents had used emergency powers liberally, before Trump, it apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone that you could use them to snatch funding for a pet project that Congress had repeatedly refused to support. 

Supreme Court Returns Constitutional Patent Case to Sender

On June 10, the Supreme Court issued its latest decision involving a dispute over the meaning of America Invents Act (AIA)—a 2011 statute that radically reworked the patent system for the first time in half a century.

The case, Return Mail v. U.S. Postal Service, involved a dispute over whether the federal government is a “person” within the meaning of the AIA. The AIA permits “any person” to petition the Patent Office to conduct another round of review (in a form of a quasi-trial) on an already-issued patent. If the Court were to find that the federal government is a “person” then any government agency would be able to take advantage of these processes.

Conversely, if the government isn’t a person, it would be limited to defending itself against patent infringement in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. While on the surface it appeared that the resolution of this question would be interesting only to patent attorneys, there were significant constitutional overtones that may be important in many subsequent cases.

The case arrived at the Supreme Court after an owner of a patent on methods of sorting and rerouting undeliverable mail attempted to license his invention to the Post Office, but was rebuffed. The patent owner then sued the Postal Service for royalties. (Because Return Mail was suing the federal government, the law limited it solely to money damages and foreclosed injunctive relief, which is a remedy available in patent suits between private parties). Instead of litigating the matter, the Postal Service turned to the Patent Office and requested that the patent be invalidated. The PTO agreed and cancelled Return Mail’s patent, which action the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed. In its petition to the Supreme Court, Return Mail argued that the Postal Service wasn’t authorized to seek Patent Office’s intervention because it wasn’t a “person” under the AIA. The justices ultimately agreed in a 6-3 decision by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. (Justices Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented).

New Genetics Evidence Should Help Quell “Reefer Madness”Mongering

A team of Australian and Dutch researchers (Gillespie et al), writing in the June 2019 issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, criticized a March 2019 study by British researchers (Di Forti et al) in the same journal that suggested variations in cannabis use and potency may be responsible for variations in psychotic disorders. Opponents of cannabis legalization have used the Di Forti study as evidence to support their position. 

The criticism rests on the fact that the authors of the March study “assume that cannabis causes psychosis or psychotic symptoms without acknowledging compelling, alternative hypotheses.” 

Gillespie and colleagues point out that most studies looking at associations between cannabis and psychosis don’t adjust for “confounding” that arises from correlated genetic and environmental individual differences. They point to their own findings as well as those of other researchers showing cannabis use may be higher among individuals with a genetic liability that predisposes them to both cannabis use and the development of psychotic disorders. 

To address the shortcomings of the March study, they specifically point to the results of their recent meta-analysis of the largest genome-wide association study of lifetime cannabis use to date. The study indicated that genetic risk factors for cannabis use and schizophrenia are positively correlated. The meta-analysis applied bidirectional randomization and found a “consistent pattern of evidence supporting a causal effect of schizophrenia risk on lifetime cannabis use.” The study “found little evidence for any causal effect of cannabis use on schizophrenia.” While conceding their analyses were not based on cannabis use frequency or potency but rather genetic risk factors, they felt confident making the following statement:

Nevertheless, our findings strongly suggested that associations between measures of cannabis use and psychosis or psychotic disorders are far more nuanced than Di Forti and colleagues assume. In addition to correlated genetic liabilities, indirect and bidirectional processes are likely to affect the associations between cannabis use, misuse, and psychotic disorders. By not acknowledging the alternative, compelling and plausible mechanisms, Di Forti and colleagues’ conclusion regarding the harmful effect of high-potency cannabis use on mental health is likely to be overestimated.

The Right Call on Iran, But It Shouldn’t Be Trump’s Call

It says something about the way we go to war now that one almost feels like thanking President Trump for deciding, at the last minute, not to kill (at least) 150 people—and risk catastrophic conflict with Iran—in order to avenge one unmanned Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, downed by an Iranian missile. It wouldn’t be “proportionate,” he said, and he’s right—though that apparently didn’t bother National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel.

While you’d never call the man cautious, much less squeamish about foreign casualties, it’s not the first time Donald Trump has appeared that way compared to the putative “adults in the room” advising him. There are several such stories in Bob Woodward’s 2018 book Fear: Trump in the White House. In April 2017, for example, after Trump becomes enraged by video of Syrian children dying from a sarin gas attack, the Joint Chiefs present him with a range of airstrike options that includes a 200-missile attack aimed at taking out the bulk of the Syrian Air Force (and almost certainly killing large numbers of Russian advisers) Trump does the smarter thing and bombs an empty runway. The night of the strike, he calls a National Security Council meeting. Woodward writes that Trump was “unusually focused on the details…. What happens if a missile goes off course?” Trump’s so concerned about it, he demands that Mattis get him a secure line to the captains of both guided missile destroyers “are your guys the best at programming the missiles?” Have we got this right? 

True, Woodward recounts scenes that have you wishing someone would steal the nuclear launch codes off Trump’s desk, but more than once, the president appears more restrained and less bloodthirsty than the people advising him, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who urges Trump to hit North Korea, saying “If a million people are going to die, they’re going to die over there, not here.” “ That’s pretty cold,” was Trump’s response.

And while it’s nice that President Trump periodically steps back from the brink, it’s insane and appalling that we’ve staked so much on the instincts and whims of one eminently fallible human being. That is not the way it was supposed to work: “This system will not hurry us into war,” James Wilson told delegates to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787, “it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”

From the Cold War through the Forever War on Terror, we’ve watched the emergence of a radically different regime, in which going to war is easy, frequent, and rarely debated. Lately, there are encouraging signs of resistance to that dynamic on Capitol Hill: yesterday’s Senate votes to rescind military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s murderous war on Yemen, Wednesday’s House vote to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, that the administration seems to think empowers the president to go to war with Iran, nearly 18 years later. But much more needs to be done to restore democratic, constitutional checks on U.S. military power, before it’s too late.