Category Archives: Government

Rep. Orcutt on Those Freeloading, Polluting Bicycles

Ed Orcutt is the ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee in the Washington House of Representatives.  In an email to a constituent, Orcutt riffed on the transportation tax bill introduced last week.  It started off easily enough:

“I am not a fan of much in the House Transportation tax proposal nor of many tax proposals . . .”

(of course not – Orcutt is an erstwhile Republican and fan of the Tea Party)

But just like the Tea Party can find a soft spot in its heart for government action when it comes to Social Security, Medicare or enforcing drug laws, Orcutt has found a tax that he actually likes:

“. . . but I have to admit I think there are valid reasons to tax bicycles.”

Really?  Like what?

Well, it may be the case that Orcutt is a closet economist, because he seems awfully concerned about externalities – you know, the costs that certain activities impose on the rest of society that aren’t paid by the person or industry creating the cost.  Orcutt, with professorial patience, continues:

“Think about this for a moment.  Currently motorists are paying to use their cars on the roads while they are actually driving their cars.  At the same time, they are paying for bike lanes because there is no gas tax – or any transportation tax – generated by the act of riding a bike on the roadways.”

That’s an admirable concern for the “free rider” problem right there. I assume Orcutt feels the same way about the firearms dealers and timber industry in his district paying the full freight for the costs they impose, although I’ve yet to see his incisive macroeconomic analysis on that topic.

But never mind that – on to the bikes!   Yes, it must be a dreadful thing, all us freeloading cyclists.  Orcutt is right, of course – we don’t pay a tax based on usage.  Compared to cars, we ARE freeriders, creating externalities that are paid for by society.  There’s no debate about that.  Although 96% of Seattle’s roadway budget comes from non-usage based funds (principally property, sales and B&O tax revenue), fully 4% comes from gas tax.  FOUR PERCENT!

The burden of which – and I can’t be plainer about this – is borne solely on the shoulders of drivers.

Rep. Ed Orcutt is obviously a principled economist, focused on the question of fairness.  I’m sure he would advocate that cyclists pay for roadway commensurate with usage and impact in relation to cars and trucks.

So let’s do some quick math.

  • In Seattle, gas tax revenues used for roads equals about $13.5 million annually.
  • Bikes are used for about 5% of commutes.  There’s obviously recreational riding as well, but let’s assume that’s washed out by non-commute driving.
  • 5% of $13.5 million is a little shy of $700,000.
  • But we haven’t accounted for commercial driving, which places a massively disproportionate burden on transportation infrastructure given the weight of the vehicles and the miles driven.  Let’s say that cuts the share attributable to bikes down to $350,000.
  • Oh, and we haven’t accounted for the difference in commute length.  The average one-way commute for drivers in Seattle is 14.1 miles; for cyclists it’s 6.1 miles. So that brings the “cycle share” down to about $150,000.
  • Then’s there’s vehicular weight and rolling resistance on pavement – the biggest driver of transportation infrastructure wear and tear.  Let’s say the average motor vehicle weighs 4000 pounds, and the average bike-and-rider 200.  That’s probably understated, since it doesn’t account for commercial vehicles or the differences in tire size, but let’s go with it because it makes for a nice, clean 5% ratio.  That brings the number down to $7,500.

So those of us commuting by bike in Seattle are free riding to the tune of, at most, $7,500 per year.  I’m guessing a more detailed analysis or factoring in the positive externalities of cycling would reduce that number further or even turn it negative.

As Orcutt is a devotee not only of fairness but also of small government, I’m certain he would not want to create or expand state bureaucracy to collect so piddling a tax, a tax whose meager revenues would be swamped by the cost of collection and enforcement.

But perhaps not.  Because Orcutt may have a bigger agenda.  You see, he is not only an economist, but also an environmentalist, concerned about the dire impact of bicycling on global warming.  He may like this tax because it uses the “pull” of state taxation to drive an end desirable to Orcutt – getting all of those spandex-clad polluters off their bikes and back behind the wheel where they won’t do so much damage to Mother Earth:

“But if I am not mistaken, a cyclist has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider.  Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.”

Read the whole crazy here.

(h/t Seattle Bike Blog)



This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

On the heels of a Washington State transportation budget containing a pointless, mean-spirited and counter-productive $25 tax on bicycles comes word that Seattle is preparing to pay $500,000 to settle a case brought against the city by Dex Media and other yellow pages companies.

Why?  Because several years ago, the city council thought it would be a fine idea to reduce paper clutter by imposing an opt-out registry on the yellow pages companies.  This regulation, while well-intentioned, suffered from some blatantly obvious constitutional infirmities.  But who cares – nobody loves the Yellow Pages, amiright?

Right.  But the fact that they may serve little purpose other than as monitor stands doesn’t change this fact: these publications enjoy first amendment protection as much as, say, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl.

So of course, we got the predictable lawsuit and appellate court dissection of Seattle’s law (which, by the way, offers a lot of pointers on the limits of the government to regulate speech even when it mixes editorial with commercial intent).  While the city could appeal to the Supreme Court, at least it had the sense to cut its losses now, paying the yellow pages providers half a million for putting them through this rigmarole.

This debacle-in-a-teacup offers a good example of why it’s rarely a good idea to pass “on principle” laws.  We’ve seen it a lot over the last few years with laws that try to stem the tide of gay marriage (like California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act), and we will no doubt get a bevy of examples in the next year on the gun regulation front.  Laws passed in the wake of a tragedy or “for the children” are particularly suspect.

Enacting public policy should require thought and deliberation.  But for far too many legislators, all that’s required is to pass feel-good, grandstanding laws with obvious problems and let courts sort them out later.  This process costs us all, and is no way to govern.

WA Proposes $25 tax on Bicycles

Democrats in the Washington legislature have just announced details of the next decade’s $9.8 billion transportation budget.  Included in the budget?  A proposal for a new fee (likely a sales or excise tax) on sales of bikes costing over $500.

This is lunacy, and whichever bike-hating representative tossed it into the proposal deserves a speedy and unceremonious exit from office.

And it’s not even the fact that it lards more cost onto bikes that’s got me galled (although that IS galling, for reasons that should be obvious).  No, the bigger problem is that you’ve got one or more legislators thinking nothing of proposing a new tax – along with the concomitant set of reporting, payment and enforcement obligations – that is expected to raise $100,000 per year.

One hundred grand?  You can barely pay for one Olympia bureaucrat for that kind of money, let alone what it’s going to take to administer this new tax.  It’s the same issue that makes virtually all efforts to license bikes ineffective – the revenues generated can’t possibly cover the costs.

But hey – if you’re a legislator who hates bikes and love big government, what do you care?  Just pop your symbolic measure into a massive transportation bill and sort it out if it ever gets enacted.  Pathetic.

Maryland Considers Helmet Law

. . . and bike advocates say NO.  As Walter Olson points out, this may be shocking to those around the nation’s capital, but it is actually possible to be both a) concerned about cycling safety, and b) not want a government “safety” mandate.

brain bucketAs I wrote last year, helmet laws are counter-productive, and in the case of Seattle and other cities, serious impediments to the launch and growth of bikeshare systems.  D.C.’s system is a joy, and could be impacted negatively by nanny-statism in the Maryland suburbs.

Here’s hoping my friends and family in Terrapin territory see fit to nix this misguided proposal.

Asking the Wrong Question: Targeted Assassination of American Citizens

All of the noise about the “President’s kill list” and the freaking out about the assassination of Americans by our own government?  It strikes me as our uniquely American bent toward litigiousness – or at least the over-lawyering that pervades so much of our lives.  And not surprisingly, it completely misses the point.

You see, I don’t care whether the people we’re targeting in drone strikes are American citizens. 

Nobody should. That question – which is what has everyone wringing their hands – is completely irrelevant.  If someone is engaging in armed hostility against the US, their citizenship doesn’t matter.  It shouldn’t matter to troops in the field or government officials.  These citizens should be treated just like any other enemy combatant.  Shot at, captured, assassinated, whatever the dictates of combat require – and all without regard to citizenship.

Now, there are some more relevant questions raised by this whole exercise, like:

  • Should we be engaging in targeted executions at all?
  • What level of decision-making is required to do so?
  • How do we determine which entities we are “at war” with?

These are the things to be concerned with – and it’s a very fair question to ask whether we’ve gone too far, and ceded too much power to the executive, in pursuit of the “global war on terror.”  

But the type of passport held by the targets of our drone strikes?  We’re missing the forest for the trees if we’re worried about that.   

Can Sheriffs Defy the Feds?

Ah, my home state of Oregon.  Reacting to President Obama’s push for gun control, a number of county sheriffs in the Beaver State have published letters stating that they will not help federal authorities enforce gun control laws they deem unconstitutional and – more ominously – they they would not “stand idly by” while the G-Men interfere with the constitutional rights of law-abiding Oregonians.

At first blush, it doesn’t seem that county sheriffs – elected officials all – should be in the position of determining the constitutionally of the laws they are employed to enforce.  But consider: prosecutors can choose not to defend on appeal laws that they do not believe are constitutional.  Notable recent examples include USAG Eric Holder’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s refusal to defend Proposition 8.

What’s more, there’s also precedent for county sheriffs refusing to be the instrumentality of federal law enforcement – and in the gun control arena, no less.  In Printz v. United States 521 US 898 (1997), the Supreme Court held that provisions of the Brady Bill requiring local law enforcement to carry out background checks on handgun purchasers were unconstitutional under the principle of dual sovereignty.

So are the sheriffs in the right?  Not so fast.  First of all, they’re likely reacting to the potential for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  While such laws may well be unconstitutional, sheriffs won’t be administering those regulations.  What’s more, the promise to not stand idly by while federal authorities enforce the laws sets up the potential for a serious jurisdictional crisis.

We remain a nation of laws, and if you see a common thread in the examples of prosecutorial discretion or local exercise of sovereignty, it’s that they all happened within the judicial process – not a face-off between state and federal law enforcement.  If these sheriffs want to make plain that they will not be the tools of the Feds, the time to do so is when actual laws are in place, and within the bounds of the legal process.  It’s not by releasing vague, inflammatory letters.

Unloading on Gun Control

Years ago, when visiting for the holidays, I asked my father-in-law, Jack, how many handguns he owned. He didn’t know. I suggested we count them; the total was 13. He’s got well over 15 now, having acquired a couple of palm-size .38s last Christmas. He likes his guns.

And guns have been heavy on my mind in the last week. It would be self-indulgent to feel that I can share in the grief of those in Newtown, or worse yet, use it as an excuse for moping about. But the problem, the inexplicable fact that America is an outlier both in gun deaths and mass killings, keeps turning around in my head. And lord knows it’s not an easy problem to solve, despite what anyone may say.

One thing I know for certain is that emotional reactions to tragic events don’t make for good policy. In the weeks ahead, we’re certain to see many poorly-thought-out, reactionary attempts at gun control. It’s an understandable impulse to want to do something, anything, to not have to have another Newtown. But again – emotions are not a good foundation for policy.

Two things we know about gun control measures: First, the vast majority of the gun control regulations that have been tried in the US have been woefully ineffective. They simply haven’t lead to any meaningful reduction in gun violence. And secondly, most of those laws are now unconstitutional.

It’s a hard truth. But it’s a sorry state of affairs when the best argument you can muster about the effectiveness of a gun control statute is that things would be “so much worse” if not for the law (as the District of Columbia did to support its blanket ban on handguns). While many gun control proposals are high-minded, they just don’t work. And the test of any government regulation isn’t whether it feels good – it’s whether it accomplishes something material enough to justify imposing a regulation.

As for the Second Amendment, there’s little use in parsing the semantics. The debate over the relationship between the operative and prefatory clauses in the Second Amendment was exhaustively, painfully, litigated and resolved by the Supreme Court four years ago in the case that tossed DC’s handgun ban – District of Columbia v. Heller. Until or unless the issue is revisited by the Supreme Court (or in the exceedingly unlikely event of a constitutional amendment), the Second Amendment will remain an individual right, subject only to government regulation that can survive the tough standard of review for impingement on fundamental freedoms.

But back to my father-in-law. While he doesn’t remember the exact number of handguns he owns, he does take a great deal of care with them. He keeps his guns under lock and key, and takes pains to instruct his grandchildren – my kids – in the safe handling of guns. Even, yes, as he tries to instill in them his love for guns (my son is a life member in the NRA, thanks to grandpa Jack).

And I wonder if this tells us something about why the US is such an outlier among developed, prosperous economies when it comes to gun deaths. While Jack takes great care of his guns and is hyper-diligent about gun safety, we’ve developed a culture of casual gun ownership. Not enough gun owners take their responsibilities seriously. There are numerous reasons for this, but two that loom large in my thinking are a) the mania among gun control advocates on outlawing certain types of weapons and b) the NRA’s pivot into politicizing gun ownership a generation ago.

The NRA has always had a significant educational component. I took NRA-sponsored hunter’s safety courses as a teenager, and shotgun courses as an adult. They do gun safety videos and materials for children. But since the 1980’s, this part of the NRA’s mission has taken a back seat to the organization’s push for expansive gun rights. At the same time, anti-gun activists have focused on trying to ban particular types of weapons, rather than concentrating fire on gun education, certification and licensing, or enforcement. The result has been a pitched battle over which weapons will be allowed or disallowed, leaving the rest of the regulatory field unplowed. This has created a system that is largely binary: Once you’ve got a gun – any gun – we’re counting on your good sense and judgment to use it wisely.

This isn’t to say that certain types of weapons can’t be outlawed. But anti-gun activists are wasting their time arguing for bans on handguns and semi-automatic rifles. There are legitimate reasons for gun owners to possess these weapons, and under the second amendment, there’s little question they have a right to do so. Gun control advocacy that recognized that gun ownership is a fundamental right – but a right that comes with significant responsibilities – would be far more effective than what we’ve seen to date. No, it wouldn’t realize any dreams of a gun-free society. But it would be better positioned to push for the sort of changes that could tackle our current culture of casual gun ownership.

Emotions are a powerful thing. But regulators looking to prevent another Newtown need to resist the urge to pass laws that run counter to Heller, and instead focus on pragmatic solutions: driving more education, enhanced penalties for crimes committed using guns, and graduated systems of licensing, certification and training to account for differences in weapon type.

It may not be as emotionally satisfying as just banning something, but this kind of approach has a better chance of actually getting us somewhere.

Campaigning on Blind Faith

It’s been nearly two weeks since the election, and I’m still struck by the comparison between the campaigns run by “community organizer” Obama and “businessman” Romney.

One campaign was a data-driven juggernaut, executing on its get-out-the-vote strategy in a systematic and fluid manner. The other was a mess, plagued by IT problems, poor communication and high levels of insularity and confirmation bias.

It’s not terribly surprising that Obama ran an effective campaign. He has experienced staff, and incumbency confers significant monetary and organizational advantages. But what of the man who promised to bring his years of business experience to the problem of managing the country? Should we heave a sigh of relief that Mitt wasn’t given the chance to bungle running the country as badly as his campaign was mismanaged?

In fact, it’s not that big of a shock that things floundered so badly for team Romney on election night. Many businesses, are, in fact, poorly run – and when faced with decent competition, left lurching in the dust.

Somewhat more surprising was the insularity that left Romney so convinced he was going to win that he didn’t even write a concession speech. While some businesses persist in burying bad news and choosing to credit only that which they want to hear, the accessibility of business performance data and the growth of tools to analyze it have made such willful blindness less and less of an option.

One week before the election, all objective data pointed to the extreme likelihood of an Obama win. Everyone (led by Nate Silver) was predicting the same thing. And most importantly, European sports books – where real money was being wagered on the outcome – were seeing a big move toward longer and longer odds for the former governor. And this pattern only accelerated as the final days to the election ticked off. By the day before the election, betting odds on Romney were 4-1 – basically the same odds the Baylor University football team has of beating #1 rated Kansas State in tomorrow’s game.

Like a mismatched football game, Romney could have pulled out a monumental underdog victory. It happens. But unlike the Republicans, underdog football teams go into such games with no illusions about the likely outcome. The coaches will motivate, the players will compete with grit, but they all know what they are up against.

So many on the right were so committed to their thesis of victory that they blinded themselves to the avalanche of data pointing in the opposition direction. They squinted hard and focused only on the few thin reeds that, lined up correctly, could deliver the outcome they were looking for. And then they really believed it. That’s strange, and a little scary – especially coming from an outfit that sold hard on bringing their business prowess to government.