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Privatize Driver Licensing June 27, 2008

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Transportation.
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Why is government in the business of licensing drivers?  The public certainly has a compelling interest in ensuring that only individuals capable of safely operating dangerous machinery are allowed to do so in public.  Government licensing of vehicle operators is one way of pursuing this goal.  But it is by no means the only way.  It is not self-evident that governments should be particularly good at setting criteria for what constitutes competency in operating machinery, or that governments should they be particularly efficient in certifying individuals in accordance with those criteria.  Anyone who has interacted with a Department of Motor Vehicles or driven on America’s roads can attest to that.

Some competent young people are ineligible to get licenses just because of their age. Many elderly and infirm citizens retain their licenses even as their faculties decline to the point that they pose a clear danger to others.  People who have proven to be dangerous drivers can often stay on the road by gaming arbitrary “point” schedules and the mix of courts and bureaucracy responsible for administering these systems.

We already have a parallel and private driver licensing system called “insurance.”  In this system the government merely requires that car owners secure insurance (or post bond) against damage their cars could inflict during operation.  Insurance companies have a far more nuanced system for assessing the risk and competence of each driver they insure.

Why maintain a licensing system when we could just depend on private insurers to determine who should be allowed to drive?  Government need only require that every driver be insured.  Insurance requirements should be substantial — given the amount of damage that a vehicle can cause I would think $100,000 in liability insurance would be a bare minimum.

If a corporation or individual is willing to put that amount of money on the line with an individual driver, they will do a much better job than the government in ensuring that the driver is safe and competent.  And you’ll never have to go the the DMV again!

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Babies: Call Them “It,” Not “She” or “Her” June 22, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.
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There is a bizarre and pervasive custom in the maternity/baby industries to refer to babies using only female pronouns — even in gender-neutral contexts.  This is really weird.  I thought the refusal to accept “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun was limited to the most fanatical left-wing feminist circles.

Consider how absurd it would be if you employed this convention in instructions for changing a newborn’s diaper: “Be sure to clean under her scrotum, and if she is circumcised remember to cover the tip of her penis with a liberal dollop of ointment on a cotton gauze pad.”

I grew up in a large family and our convention was generally to refer babies with non-gendered pronouns.  E.g., “Where’s the baby? I need to change its diaper and put it to bed.”  Babies didn’t earn their gendered pronouns (or their name) until they could start to interact and understand language.

What Gay Marriage Proponents Want June 21, 2008

Posted by federalist in Social Politics, Uncategorized.
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Why did the WSJ see fit to print Jonathan Rauch’s incoherent arguments in favor of gay marriage? He asks readers to imagine a world without marriage as he begins a thousand-word shell game, shuffling our attention between three aspects of marriage too fast to critically conclude that “Gay Marriage Is Good for America.”

At first “marriage” is nothing but a public commitment between two people in love. But of course homosexuals are as capable of public commitment as any heterosexual adult, so it’s on to the second aspect of “marriage:” The legal contract. This is a substantive issue since our governments restrict a number of legal rights and benefits to the contract of marriage. Why should only heterosexual couples enjoy conjugal social security benefits, immigration privileges, tax exemptions, or immunity from testifying against their spouse in court? It is an excellent question, but it is not a grievance unique to homosexual couples. After all, a heterosexual man may want to extend those legal benefits not only to his wife, but also to his mother, daughter, and another close female friend. He may love them all equally, he could have a sexual relationship with any of them, and they may all be involved in raising a family, but the law does not allow him to maintain a marriage contract with any but the first unrelated adult female.

A cynic would stop here, assuming that Rauch’s colorful professions of love and commitment are nothing but a disguise for the motives of material gain bound up in government sanctions of marriage. Nevertheless, he does shuffle in a third aspect of “marriage” worthy of consideration: Acceptance. There is no question that it is better for everyone when a community gives a person (or a couple) acceptance instead of intolerance. Is marriage required for acceptance of a couple? He admits that homosexual behavior has already obtained mainstream acceptance, and confidently states, “This will not change, ever.” This acceptance occurred before any legal recognition of gay marriage.

Rauch leaves us to conclude that gay marriage proponents are really just after legal and financial benefits. Perhaps government should not offer such benefits, or perhaps it should offer them with no restrictions. In either case, gay marriage is an obtuse pretense for such policy questions.

Plasma Waste Conversion June 16, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Better than an incinerator: Plasma conversion turns any waste stream into glass and elemental gas. In the case of carbonaceous materials, which includes the bulk of what we call “trash,” the process can also produce a surplus of energy. I.e., rather than trucking trash to a dump, we can convert it into synthetic gas, electricity, and vitrified gravel.

(Solid plasma waste still contains any radioactive isotopes or heavy metals in the original waste stream, so it doesn’t eliminate nuclear waste. But at least any toxic metals are locked away in glassy slag instead of slowly leaching out of a rotting landfill. Or, as this patent application suggests, we might go one better and process the plasma before cooling to recover refined high-value metals.)

Popular Science did an article on this last year — excerpts below the fold:

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Don’t Talk to the Authorities June 15, 2008

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Regent Law School Professor James Duane recorded an excellent lecture explaining why you should never agree to an “interview” with government authorities — even if you believe you have nothing to hide, even if you are innocent of any crime, and even if you would only speak truth!

I previously assumed that our Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was a relic of earlier justice systems that exploited coercion in ways that are not accepted today.  Why, given all of the protections encumbering our modern judicial system, would an innocent person refuse to testify to authorities?  Professor Duane gives a more nuanced explanation, but two salient reasons are:

  1. Today’s legal code is so bloated that no person can be certain that they have not broken a law.
  2. Even if you haven’t broken a law the mere act of trying to affirm your innocence can incriminate you.

The first point is a failure of the legislature: No government should be permitted to erect a minefield of laws through which its executive agents can push any citizen they may wish to harass.  The second point is true even in the abstract, but it is compounded by human nature and a legal system that lets prosecutors launch witch-hunts.

Stop Saying WWW! June 10, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.
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“WWW” should never be spoken. It stands for “World Wide Web,” but while easier to type it takes three times as many syllables to say “double-u double-u double-u.” WWW is neither an acronym (which must be a word) nor a spoken abbreviation (which presumably must be shorter than the thing that is abbreviated). It is an abomination.

Attempts to abbreviate the pronunciation of WWW have been valiant, and at times clever. Germans and other speakers of Eastern-European languages can say “veh-veh-veh” without any ambiguity. “Dub-dub-dub” has caught on in some English-speaking countries. “Sextuple-u” is an amusing improvement, but still one syllable too many.

In any case, “WWW” is obsolete. There was only a brief period in the early 1990’s, before the web and browsers were mainstream, when there could be any ambiguity regarding URL’s. Those days are long gone: You don’t open an Email application and specify that it send your messages using the SMTP protocol, or look up the MX record for the domain you’re Emailing to resolve the destination IP. So why do you open a web browser and specify HTTP, or prefix your URL with “www”? That’s the domain administrator’s job.

If you’re going to a web site, just enter the domain name (and any trailing URL data) in a web browser. Don’t worry about the protocol, and don’t put “www.” in front.  If the URL doesn’t work without a preceding “www.” then the site is misconfigured.  Tell the site administrators to join the 21st century:  Any competent domain admin will configure servers to automatically route internet requests to the correct service and port based on the protocol. If a domain is supposed to service HTTP requests, it should take them with or without a “www.” prefix. If a site demands secure HTTP the servers should forward plain HTTP requests to the secure URL and protocol.

Priorities From the Copenhagen Consensus June 7, 2008

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Energy, Government Spending, Social Politics.
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Philanthropists, activists, big charities, governments — there are many entities with lots of time and money and ideas for spending their resources to improve the world.  They frequently do a very poor job of it.

I have applauded the Copenhagen Consensus Center before.  The results of their latest panel, ranking the expenditures that will produce the greatest economic good in the world, should be studied by all of the aformentioned entities.  At the top of the list: Nutritional supplements, free trade, and vaccinations.

QOTD: Saving As Philanthropy June 5, 2008

Posted by federalist in Taxation.
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Steven Landsburg, in a review of Ronald Wilcox’s book:

Like philanthropy, saving is an act of self-denial that enriches your neighbors (by leaving more goods available for them to consume). But unlike philanthropy, saving is punished by the tax system (via the taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and inheritance). That’s nuts. When you tax saving, you encourage people – wealthy people in particular – to spend more and grab a larger share of the consumption pie. “More consumption by the rich” should not be among the primary objectives of the tax code.

The alternative is to tax consumption. Mr. Wilcox thus believes (as do I and probably most economists) that a consumption tax is better than an income tax, at least in principle. But he withholds his full endorsement for a variety of spurious reasons, mostly born of his false assumption that any consumption tax must be levied at the point of sale. He worries, for example, that a consumption tax is necessarily nonprogressive. But you can easily implement a consumption tax with a Form 1040 that says: “How much did you earn this year? How much did you save? Now pay tax on the difference.” And you can make that tax as progressive as you like.