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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'm a little behind in responding to this story, but as long as Americans continue to smoke cigarettes, calls to increase taxes on the purchase of cigarettes will also continue. Reuters reported in a one-sided story that a $1 per pack tax increase on cigarettes would "reap" over $9 billion in increased tax collections.

The story quotes John Seffrin, chief executive of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network:

An increase in tobacco tax rates is not only sound public health policy but a smart and predictable way to help boost the economy and generate long-term health savings for states facing deepening budget deficits.
The American Cancer Society, in conjunction with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and various other advocacy groups, have long touted increased taxes as a means to deter smoking, often under the guise of increasing tax collections. These are two separate motives, and I will address each separately.

First, and most importantly, why do nonsmokers feel the need to FORCE smokers to quit? You should not be proud of making an activity too expensive for a person if they truly enjoy partaking in it. Some people truly enjoy smoking and do not want to quit. By making cigarettes more expensive, you will do one of two things to this type of smoker: 1. force them to spend more on cigarettes and less on other goods and services, or 2. force them to quit an activity they love. This should not be a proud moment for anyone.

The second motive is to supposedly increase tax collections for states. This, of course, assumes this is a state tax increase as opposed to a federal tax increase, as a federal tax increase will only serve to decrease states tax collections from cigarettes.

John Seffrin's quote states that cigarette taxes are a "smart and predictable way to help boost the economy." In one way, he is correct. Increasing cigarette taxes will surely boost the sales of black market cigarettes. A recent study found:
...hiking taxes $1 per pack will lead to a leap in the total smuggling rate in Washington from 39.3 percent to 51.5 percent. That is, 51.5 percent of the cigarettes smoked in the state of Washington will be contraband.

Commercial smuggling involves large-scale organizations that ship semi-tractor trailers and vans long distances and maintain complex distribution systems.

Our estimates indicate that nearly 30 percent of the smuggling will come from these commercial haulers. It’s worth noting that some of the trailers are actually hijacked from underneath legitimate truckers themselves.

In researching this post, I came across a report by the aforementioned Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids entitled, "Raising State Cigarette Taxes Always Increases State Revenues." I have a general rule that when the title of an article contains a lie, there is not much need to read the rest of it.

For example, according to a Commonwealth Foundation study, in Pennsylvania:
After a 35 cent per pack increase in 2004, revenue fell by $72 million, and tax revenues remained below 2004 levels since then.
Of course, the more damning evidence against the projection that a $1 per pack tax increase would raise over $9 billion in new tax collections is that these projections have consistently been overestimated. The same Commonwealth Foundation study stated:
Of 57 state excise taxes imposed from 2003 through 2007, only 16 were found to raise as much revenue as projected. Thirty-nine state tax increases fell short of estimate by a range of 2% to 181%.
This doesn't exactly strike me as "smart and predictable."

Posted by Eleutherian 4 comments
Monday, March 15, 2010

I recommend this great article by James Stephenson, Seen Not Heard: How Obscure Security Makes School Suck. It's not very long and worth the read to get an idea of what our children are exposed to under the guise of security.

One of my favorite points made in the article (emphasis mine):

A common justification for cameras is that they make students safer, and make them feel more secure. I can tell you from first hand experience that that argument is bullshit. Columbine had cameras, but they didn't make the 15 people who died there any safer. Cameras don't make you feel more secure; they make you feel twitchy and paranoid. Some people say that the only people who don't like school cameras are the people that have something to hide. But having the cameras is a constant reminder that the school does not trust you and that the school is worried your fellow classmates might go on some sort of killing rampage.
See my previous post on why 'I Have Nothing to Hide' Is a Poor Argument against Privacy.

Posted by Eleutherian 3 comments
Monday, March 8, 2010

The White House’s new cyber-security chief, Howard Schmidt, recently declassified the highly-secretive policies behind the much rumored NSA-backed Homeland Security cyber attack defense program known as Einstein.

Mr. Schmidt deserves credit for taking the steps to declassify this important information, regardless of his motives. However, this should not make us feel any more at ease about this program. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The program is designed to look for indicators of cyber attacks by digging into all Internet communications, including the contents of emails, according to the declassified summary.

Homeland Security will then strip out identifying information and pass along data on new threats to NSA. It will also use threat information from NSA to better identify emerging cyber attacks.

As Homeland Security increases the size of the haystack from which they are trying to find the needles, they will increase continue to increase the number of false positives, treating innocent law-abiding strands of hay as if they were treasonous needles. Yes, in this analogy, hay is the U.S. population and needles are terrorists.

In a previous post on privacy, I stated:
Advocates of security over privacy will often justify their position on data mining by touting the technology as the solution to finding a needle in a haystack. However, the combination of surveillance and processing created the haystack in the first place. These techniques also create a problem known as the false positive paradox.

Let's assume that a terrorist test is 80 percent accurate. In New York City, the test would indicate false positives for over 4 million citizens. Instead of finding 10 terrorists, the test would label millions of citizens, who likely love their country, as enemies of the state.
Even if you do not plan on ever committing any serious crimes, the odds of you being falsely accused will continue to increase with the expansion of programs like Einstein.

Posted by Eleutherian 3 comments
Saturday, March 6, 2010

  • Government interferes in private market by passing regulations that discourage new entries into the industry.
  • Two private companies in this industry want to merge.
  • Government prevents merger due to lack of competition.
The above summary tells the tale of the voting machine industry since the 2000 presidential election. Like many economic problems, it all started with unwarranted government intervention in the private market.

The Associated Press reports that the Justice Department is attempting to undo a merger that occurred six months ago between the country's two largest voting machine companies. Since the new, merged company now operates machines in 70 percent of the nation's voting districts:
Critics say the merger could cause foul-ups at the polls on Election Day, and some even characterize it as a national security risk.
If a merger that occurred six months ago (more than one year before the mid-term elections) runs the risk of causing "foul-ups," then how would undoing a merger just nine months before mid-term elections reduce this risk? It doesn't.

Surprisingly, the AP prominently reported on the real cause behind the lack of competition in the industry:
The emergence of one megaplayer in the electronic voting machine industry may be an unintended consequence of reforms enacted after the presidential election debacle in Florida a decade ago. Few companies can afford to get into the business due to the expense of developing the electronic voting safeguards that reformers insisted on.
Instead of admitting their previous mistakes and introducing regulatory reforms, the government has decided to cause further damage to the voting machine industry by breaking up an economically viable business contract.

Posted by Eleutherian 1 comments
Sunday, February 21, 2010

CNN reports that Rep. Ron Paul won the annual CPAC presidential straw poll on Saturday with 31 percent of the vote (Mitt Romney finished second with 22 percent). While this will not have much of an effect on the eventual Republican candidate, it has profound complications for the future of both the Republican and Libertarian parties.

Of the 2,400 voters at CPAC, 54 percent were between the ages of 18 and 25, and they overwhelmingly voted for Ron Paul over more traditional Republican candidates. These 1,000+ young people actually want to call themselves Republicans, but they cannot identify with the majority of the party's favored politicians.

Ron Paul's following has continued to grow since the last presidential primary, especially among young voters. When Ron Paul fails to win the nomination (yes, "when" not "if" - the Republican Party leadership will not stand behind Paul), some of his disillusioned followers will still vote Republican. However, the Libertarian Party will provide an attractive alternative to many of these freedom loving individuals.

Just as the Democrats refuse to support the numerous good policies that go against the desires of their union and trial lawyer support base, Republicans refuse to lose the support of their ultra-conservative and elderly supporters. Democrats continue to embrace traditional (reactionary) policies, while Republicans embrace traditional (outdated) policies. Of the two, outdated trumps reactionary, but it's still a choice between two inferior options.

The Libertarian Party offers the superior option for anyone who supports a truly progressive agenda. For example, as I stated in a previous post:

Given that the libertarian platform has formed the basis for your [LGBT] rights, it's in your self-interest to support the continuation of this platform - libertarianism.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Thursday, January 7, 2010

I recently began reading the first book in John C. Wright’s Golden Age science fiction trilogy. While it was a slow read at first (which I now see as necessary to fully understand the futuristic society), the philosophical themes have taken shape, and it has become a joy to read. This is not the first time I have written about a science fiction book on this blog. Oddly, I had never even read a science fiction book until I started this blog several months ago. Several books on the Libertarian Reading List fall in this genre, and they are among the best books for challenging the stubborn remnants of traditional, reactionary thinking in any self-proclaimed libertarian.

Returning to Wright’s The Golden Age, the paragraph at the bottom of page 114 shook me from my blogging lethargy. The story’s main character, Phaethon (a reference to the Greek myth), is suffering from voluntary memory loss but cannot understand why his full-memory self would voluntarily agree to it. He is questioning Rhadamanthus (an artificial, self-aware entity/servant with thought capacity far beyond that of a normal being) why he didn’t stop him from making such a foolish decision (as he now sees it). To this, Rhadamanthus replied:

If we were to overrule your ownership of your own life, your life, would, in effect, become our property, and you, in effect, would become merely the custodian or trustee of that life. Do you think you would value it more in such a case, or less? And if you valued it less, would you not take greater risks and behave more self-destructively? If, on the other hand, each man’s life is his own, he may experiment freely, risking only what is his, till he find [sic] his best happiness.
The themes in this one paragraph have countless “real world” applications. I will expand on the two main points: the nanny state mentality (or as I often refer to it, legislating morality) and encouraging risk.

Whenever the government attempts to legislate morality or dictate behavior, it is overruling your ownership of your life. If Rhadamanthus is correct in implying that lacking ownership of your life will cause you to value it less (and I believe he is correct), then this will increase feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide among the owned people. On top of that, governments often pass absurd legislation to prohibit people from ending a life they no longer value. (See David Hume’s essay Of Suicide for more on this topic). Most of all, when the government overrules your ownership of your life, it increases your dependence on the government.

The relationship between ownership and risk is a topic that deserves a post of its own, but I will briefly touch on it here. Risk homeostasis is when increased safety measures (for example) have the unintended effect of promoting riskier behavior. An example of this can be seen in the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis. The government wanted to encourage people to purchase homes (because they apparently have something against renting – but I digress), but banks were not willing to approve loans to people who did not appear capable of making payments over the life of the loan. To solve this, the government stepped in and offered to guarantee these loans that the banks would not have otherwise made. This encouraged the banks, related financial intuitions, realtors, and potential homeowners to engage in risky behavior.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I apologize for the long hiatus since my last post. I've had this story on my desk for weeks, but the sheer brilliance of it finally brought me back to this blog.

New York City's first completely non-smoking apartment building will soon open at 1510 Lexington Avenue. Residents will be prohibited from smoking both inside and within the immediate outside perimeter of the building.

This story might upset a lot of people - after all, the building is banning a legal activity. However, allow me to explain my positive excitement over this news.

The government did not have a finger in this decision. This is not a public housing project. Rather, this is a private, family-owned apartment building that saw unmet market demand for smoke-free housing. CBS New York reported:

And even with a surplus of apartments on the market, Kenbar [Management] feels theirs will be in demand. Backing that up was a Zogby poll in July, which found that 58 percent of New Yorkers would be willing to pay more for a smoke-free home.
If you want to be free to smoke in your apartment - fine, live someplace else.

All levels of government can learn a valuable lesson from this story. There is no need to force private businesses to ban smoking in their establishments. If a market for smoke-free establishments exist, the private sector will respond to it. The government will cause more harm than good by intervening in these matters that lie outside its proper scope.

For example, Ireland's smoking ban in pubs has been highly lauded around the world. However, it is not as widely known that in the first year of the smoking ban, over 100 pubs went out of business. According to Stephen Kelly, chief executive of the Federation of Retail Licensed Trade:
The much-promoted view that non-smokers would be rushing to premises has not materialised. We expect another 100 to close next year.
If non-smokers want to spend their money only at smoke-free establishments, the private market will react far more appropriately than the government in taking actions to accept their money. Government intervention is tailored to only meet the needs of the majority (or, more specifically, the majority of the electorate). The private market, on the other hand, meets the needs of every individual - an incomprehensible concept to supporters of big government.