Author Archives: Ari Armstrong

Lessons from Martian Climate Change

Water flows on Mars, NASA announced September 28. “Using an imaging spectrometer on [the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes,” NASA reports. I first heard about this surface water from an August 19 video from Comic-Con (see minute 9:40), in which NASA representatives discuss Mars and The Martian film; some evidence for this water has been around for several years.

This is huge news with respect to potential human missions to Mars as well as to the potential for discovering life on Mars.

But how did Mars get so dry in the first place, and what does that phenomenon teach us about Earth?

I was somewhat amused to read the following Tweet: “‘Mars suffered climate change and lost its surface water.’ There are words to scare the s**t out of all living humans.” I agree with that sentiment, but not for the reasons the Tweeter presumably had in mind.

What the Tweeter probably thought was something like this: “Mars experienced climate change that would have been catastrophic for any life present and that likely prevented new life from developing. Earth, too, is experiencing some climate change, largely because of human activity, and this could lead to catastrophic results such as we see on Mars.”

Obviously, such a take on Martian climate change is a little silly. Mars lost almost all of its greenhouse gasses; Earth is gaining greenhouse gases. (Due mostly to human activity, carbon dioxide has risen from around 300 parts per million of the atmosphere, or 0.03 percent of the atmosphere, to 400 parts per million, or 0.04 percent.) Outside the realm of pure fantasy, not even the most hysterically alarmist predictions about Earth’s climate change predict a future remotely as dire as what happened on Mars.

But the extreme changes on Mars do offer a warning to humans. We’ll come back to that.

First, let’s review in brief what happened on Mars. As the geography of Mars makes evident, water once flowed in great abundance on Mars. But then Mars lost most of its atmosphere and the oceans boiled away. Why? Apparently Mars just didn’t have enough mass to hang on to its air, especially given the violence of meteor impacts, and the atmosphere dissipated. (Another theory I’d heard, that Mars’s weak magnetic field allowed solar winds to blow off the atmosphere, appears not to be much of a factor.)

The main lesson of Martian climate change, then, is that for the most part the universe is extremely hostile to life, and even places most hospitable to life may not stay that way. If life evolved on Mars, it was either killed off or driven underground by purely natural causes.

The Earth is not magically immune from such potential natural catastrophes. Indeed, less-severe natural catastrophes, ranging from earthquakes to hurricanes to volcanic eruptions, happen fairly routinely. Asteroid collisions have dramatically impacted the evolution of life on Earth—and a sufficiently large asteroid could destroy all life on Earth. At one point, humanity “damn near went extinct” due to an ice age likely caused by a supervolcano.

The lesson I take from this is that, to ensure the survival and expansion of our species long-term, humans absolutely must colonize space—and Mars is a great place to begin.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian novel, shares this view:

I want us to have a self-sufficient, human population somewhere other than Earth, because, twenty-five years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up. And, as long as our entire species is on one planet, we risk extinction. It’s not very likely, but it could happen. It could be plague, it could be a war, it could be a meteor strike or something like that. But, if we’re on two planets, it is practically impossible for us to die.

Similarly, in Welcome to Mars, Buzz Aldrin writes, “The pioneers who settle Mars will . . . ensure the long-term survival of life in our solar system. Earth faces challenges. If there were a disaster, Mars would give us a place to get resources or to make a new home” (p. 6).

Speaking of climate change, Aldrin has some intriguing ideas for pursuing human-made climate change on Mars:

Giant mirrors in orbit could direct . . . sunshine to heat Mars’s polar ice caps. A temperature increase of just a few degrees would thaw the carbon dioxide frozen there. . . . As the temperature rises, more carbon dioxide is released. . . . If the mirrors aren’t enough, we can knock an asteroid out of its orbit to slam into Mars. Some asteroids are rich in ammonia, another greenhouse gas. An impact would produce a lot more heat and carbon dioxide, too. Once it is warm enough for water on the surface, plants can grow. (pp. 88–89)

I’m not sure how well that would work long-term, especially given Mars’s apparent difficulty keeping its atmosphere. But, one way or another, humans can make Mars hospitable to life.

Sure, human activity brings with it certain risks, harms, and trade-offs. But these risks are nothing compared to the risks of humans not acting to expand and improve human life on Earth and, eventually, beyond.


The Martian Presents a Hopeful Future for Humanity

The Martian Film

Readers of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (which I reviewed for Objective Standard) knew that the science presented in the film would be highly realistic. (The major exception is the opening dust storm, which, as Weir has granted, is much more powerful than is possible in Mars’s thin air; Weir strayed from the science here for dramatic effect.)

We knew that the story would be a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

We also knew that the characters, particularly Watney, would be colorful and engaging.

What I did not know is whether the film would be very good. On one hand, it’s directed by Ridley Scott, and it stars Matt Damon and a superb supporting cast, so what could go wrong? On the other hand, lines such as Watney’s remark, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this” (added by screenwriter Drew Goddard, not Weir), could have come across as hokey in less talented hands. Was this film going to bring Weir’s enthralling tale fully to life or paint it by numbers?

I loved it. The film version of The Martian surpassed my hopes, which started out pretty high. I had been excited about the film since I first heard about it after reading the novel. In some ways, the film improves on the novel, as with its better-developed ending.

True, after an intense opening sequence, the film progresses a little slowly. But it builds steam as it develops its characters and reveals the enormity of the challenges that Watney faces. This is not your typical high-explosion, constant-motion (but ultimately meaningless) action flick; it is a story that is both exciting and deeply human.

Matt Damon is excellent. He nails the intensely emotional scenes as well as the funny ones. All of the lines, many of which a lesser actor would have bungled, come across as authentic and in-character—even the pirate jokes.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Jessica Chastain as the mission commander who plays a pivotal role in the rescue effort; the always-outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA official; Mackenzie Davis as a young NASA satellite operative who first discovers Watney is still alive; and Donald Glover as an innovative astrophysicist who hatches a plan to bring Watney home.

Also, Sean Bean has a nice role as the earth-stationed flight commander—and he doesn’t even die!

Both the Martian landscapes and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Watching this film, it’s easy to imagine yourself on Mars.

I love Watney’s determination and his sense of humor under enormous pressure.  But mostly I love The Martian‘s glimpse into the future of space colonization that we humans are destined to have—if only we choose to strive for that future. This is probably the most enjoyable film I’ll watch this year—and it may the most important film of the era.


Buzz Aldrin’s Delightful Guide for Young Martians

It is entirely possible that my son will be among the first Martians. I was therefore delighted to pick up a copy of Buzz Aldrin’s new guide for young Earthlings who aspire to visit Mars someday, move there, or at least learn more about our neighbor in the solar system. Aldrin wrote the book—Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet, published this year by National Geographic Kids—with the help of physicist and children’s author Marianne J. Dyson.

Aldrin invites young readers to join him on a visionary journey to travel to Mars and help build the first colony there. Colonists first rocket to the red planet on a six-month journey.

Then the crew lands on the new world. Aldrin stirs the imagination:

The jets kicked up a cloud of dust just like on the moon, too. [Remember, Aldrin walked on the moon on the same trip as Neil Armstrong.) It settled down faster here because there is more gravity here than on the moon. But the real difference is the sky. On the moon, the sky was black, even in the daytime. Here, the rosy color is like the dawning of a new day. (p. 53)

Colonists join their associates who arrived earlier to set up camp, then set off to explore Mars to find an ideal place for a new home. Finally everyone settles in and contemplates plans for building larger living areas and, eventually, for terraforming the surface.

Welcome to Mars by Buzz AldrinAround this simply told story, Aldrin weaves substantial background information about the history of Martian study, the science of getting to Mars and eventually living there, and the nature of the planet itself.

Because of this material, Aldrin’s book makes an excellent primer for busy adults, too. One thing I learned about was the “Aldrin Cycler,” a specialized spaceship that permanently orbits around the sun, passing close both to Mars and to Earth. Aldrin’s idea is to hop aboard a Cycler, which passes by Earth every twenty-six months, to ferry people and supplies to Mars. Although I’m not convinced that a Cycler is necessarily the way to go for the first colonists to Mars—Robert Zubrin has other ideas—it seems like an obviously good idea at least in the long-term.

I especially enjoyed one of Aldrin’s historical tidbits. In 1966, Carl Sagan coauthored a book claiming (Aldrin summarizes) that Mars’s moons “Phobos and Deimos might be artificial satellites left from an extinct Martian civilization” (p. 36). Fantasies about advanced life on Mars have died hard—but reasonable hope that we may eventually find simple life there, or at least evidence of simple life from the past, remains.

On a few points, the book seems wildly unrealistic, as with its speculation that people might someday ski down Martian gullies (p. 59). Given Aldrin’s own description of the horrific death anyone would face on Mars without the benefit of protective habitats or suits (p. 74), I doubt anyone would risk a cracked helmet for a joyride.

I was disappointed that Aldrin pays so little attention to the possibility of nuclear power on Mars (he does mention it in a paragraph on p. 69) and so much attention to politically popular but less reliable solar and wind energies (pp. 64, 68). Aldrin emphasizes solar and wind even while discussing the facts that the sun shines less brightly on Mars, sunlight varies substantially by season, dust storms obscure the sun for weeks at a time, and the atmosphere is very thin on Mars (p. 68). Given the thin atmosphere and seasonality of storms, Aldrin’s suggestion for mountaintop wind turbines seems particularly ridiculous. By contrast, Aldrin’s suggestion for a geothermal plant is intriguing, and it seems to be much more realistic if suitable conditions can be found (p. 69).

Despite its very minor flaws, I greatly enjoyed reading through Aldrin’s book. I look forward to reading it to my son in the coming years. But suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, if my son does go to Mars someday, he might stay there forever. As sad as that would be, maybe it’s about time we said goodbye to humanity’s next wave of pioneers.


An Elegant Solution for Storing Breast Milk

Breast Milk Storage

It’s great if babies can be exclusively breast fed from birth. But, for many of us parents, that just doesn’t work out, so we turn to pumping and, with that, breast milk storage.

My wife and my baby was born prematurely, so he started off with a bottle in the NICU, first with donated breast milk, then with my wife’s milk. He has never exclusively breast fed. Now that my wife is back to work, she pumps there and I bottle feed throughout the day.

As far as I can tell, Madela sets the standard in breast pumps, and our older model (donated by a friend) works great. (Contrary to advice from hospital staff, we found that the “hospital grade” pump isn’t actually much of an improvement; if anything, we prefer the home model.) But what about storage of all that pumped milk?

After some trial and error (including a late-night spilled cup of milk), we hit on a solution that works for us. It might work for you, too. (It is up to you to properly clean and sterilize whatever equipment you end up using and to check with qualified health professionals about all such matters.)

We tried bags, which are basically glorified ziplocks at a shockingly higher price. I didn’t like trying to pour milk out of those floppy things.

So we started storing milk in standard one-cup canning jars. But how do you get the milk out of the jar into the bottle? It’s too messy to try to pour straight out of the jar. At first we used syringes, but after a while those tend to stick. So we bought an eight-dollar plastic cap via Amazon, one that claims to be “FDA approved-Food Safe, BPA-free & Phthalates-free.” I don’t know what Phthalates are, but apparently I can rest assured they won’t end up in baby’s bottle.

This cap works great for us. It seals well on the jar, it has a tight cap on a hinge, and it pours the milk very well with no spillage.

Incidentally, we’ve found that one-cup canning jars with standard lids also work great to freeze extra milk—just be sure not to fill them too full so as to allow for ice expansion.

Sometimes with parenting, we’re finding, simple, inexpensive solutions can work wonders. We’ve found that to be the case with our capped jar approach to milk storage.


Using Evernote for Research

Evernote Interface

For a long time I’ve struggled to track and organize my research for various writing projects. My solution—for now, anyway—is to use Evernote to stash and organize articles and notes. I also use Evernote for my to-do lists, which works fairly well, and for a few other tasks.

Evernote is a type of software that combines features of a word processor and a database. (Another example of this type of software is Scrivener, which I’ve also started to use for writing.) It’s great for displaying multiple thumbnails of files at a time, allowing easy viewing of a given file, and organizing files by category.

Evernote has several advantages other other offerings of the type. Its web-based interface allows users to access their data on any web-connected device; its mobile apps allow easy syncing between mobile devices and desktops; and its web browser add-on “web clipper” enables easy storage and sorting of the contents of web pages. No longer do I have to worry about important articles disappearing on me; I just save a copy to Evernote. (Evernote also has a desktop app, but I didn’t see the point of using it.)

Unfortunately, a recent “upgrade” to Evernote’s web-based interface made the software less functional for me. Before, I found it easy to group multiple files by “notebook,” then to “stack” multiple notebooks into groups. With the upgrade, I found it too hard to display this hierarchy of files, so I ended up unstacking all my notebooks. For ease of use, this is how I recommend using Evernote: Put all your notes into notebooks, and don’t attempt further nesting of files.

Before I unstacked my notebooks, I didn’t use Evernote’s tag feature. Now I use tags. These are useful for grouping small numbers of like files together and for tying together files in different notebooks.

I do four main things with Evernote: collect research, write and collect notes about projects, collect information about personal business interactions, and maintain to-do lists. Let’s take these in turn.

Most of my notebooks are devoted to research topics. For example, I have a notebook for “Philosophy, Kant” and another for “Philosophy, Rand.” (This naming structure allows me to easily view related notebooks next to each other alphabetically.) I have a notebook for “Research, Abortion” and another for “Research, Capitalism.” (Someday I may get around to changing the word “research” to “policy.”)

When I come across an interesting article that I want to save, I cut-and-past it into a new note in the appropriate notebook, or I use Evernote’s web-clipping function (which I use with the Safari browser). Usually with the web-clipper, I find it useful to cut-and-paste the citation information as straight text into the “Add remark” box, then save the main text in “Simplified article” mode.

I use separate notebooks to record my personal notes on various topics. As examples, I have notebooks for “Project Notes, Religion” and “Project Notes, Roads.” Of course, it’s possible to use a single notebook to combine outside materials and personal notes. For example, I could put my collected articles as well as my own notes about roads into a unified folder. But I opted not to do that, because generally the number of articles I gather far outpace the number of notes that I write, so in a unified notebook my personal notes would get buried.

I use a “Personal, Business” notebook to record information about contractors, doctors, and other service providers with whom I interact.

Finally, I have two notebooks for to-do lists, “To Do New” and “To Do Archive.” I like using the archive file, because I can reproduce the contents of my list into a new list, then save the old list to the archives. That way I can go back and see my progress if I want. At this point, I have two notes in “To Do New,” my main to-do list and my to-write list, which lists the various writing projects I hope to take up.

Obviously there are lots of different ways to use Evernote, but I’ve found a way that works pretty well for me and that’s easy to maintain. I use the free “basic” level of service; two different pay-per-year levels offer more services, including sharing features that many businesses use. So far, the basic level has been ample for my needs.

I was surprised to see a total limit of 100,000 notes and 250 notebooks; I’ve already stored 897 notes in the short time I’ve been using Evernote. I asked via Twitter if the company plans to expand these limits. Evernote replied, “Not that we can publicly release.” But most users won’t need to worry about those limits for a long time.

For collecting and organizing research, as well as for various other tasks, Evernote works.

October 1, 2015 Update: Today I hit my monthly upload limit, which, for the free account, is 60 megabytes. The first, paid upgrade offers a full gigabyte—way more than I need. So my solution is to simply stop using the web clipper and cut-and-paste files into Evernote so as to avoid space-consuming images. You can find your monthly usage stats in your account summary.

Huemer on Strengthening the Chains of the Constitution

Michael Huemer
If American government was to be bound by the “chains of the Constitution,” then surely those chains have loosened if not snapped. Michael Huemer, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has some ideas for how to tighten those chains. He discussed these ideas July 13 at an event hosted by Liberty On the Rocks, Flatirons.

Huemer observes that structural and procedural Constitutional provisions (regarding how government functions) tend to be taken more seriously than are substantive Constitutional provisions (regarding what government may and may not do). So his ideas focus on changing government structures and procedures in the hopes of indirectly altering the substance of what government does.

He offers three main proposals. First, new legislation should require a two-thirds vote by Congress. Second, “there should be a negative legislature that has the power only of repealing laws.” Third, besides the Supreme Court, there should be a new Constitutional Court, “where the cases are decided by a jury of citizens,” that can initiate Constitutional review and that can mete out punishments to elected officials who violate the Constitution.

Generally I regard these as excellent ideas.

Huemer did an especially good job of explaining why the default should be for government to take no action—the opposite of today’s presumption. Government action, he stressed, involves coercing people. In general, he argued, it’s better to not coerce someone, even if coercion might be justified in a given case, than it is to coerce someone unjustly.

Huemer likened modern government to a Medieval doctor. Society, like the human body, is enormously complex, and making a random change to it is more likely to do harm than good. Medieval doctors were more likely to harm their patients than to help them, Huemer noted, and, similarly, government actors are more likely to do harm than good. Thus, he concluded, it’s good to move the default closer to government taking no action via the institutional changes he suggests. (Huemer offered many additional arguments to buttress his case; for these I’ll point individuals to the video of his presentation.)

I think Huemer went off track only a few times. The most important example is his treatment of the separation of powers. True, as he noted, different government institutions very often support rather than oppose each other. But that does not change the fact that the separation of powers, instituted not only in the tripartite federal government but in federal-state divisions and in representational elections, very often stops or slows the imposition of bad government policies. For example, the Supreme Court threw out much of FDR’s New Deal, and more recently it threw out censorship of political speech via the Citizens United decision.

Huemer errs in this matter largely because he assumes government entities generally seek to expand their own power. True, they often do. But very often government actors are driven by ideological convictions, not (or not only) by a lust for personal power. Because people in different government entities  are motivated by ideological convictions (to a lesser or greater degree), the separation of powers works somewhat better than Huemer thinks.

Another problem with Heumer’s presentation is that his idea of a “negative legislature” needs a lot more development to be viable. It would be a straight-forward fix if it were the case that new laws always expand government powers on net, while repeals of laws always reduce them. But that’s not the case. New laws very often curtail government powers made possible by preexisting laws. For example, federal civil rights laws preempted state-level discrimination laws—and that was a pro-liberty development. In Colorado a few years back, new legislation curtailed the power of police to seize property through asset forfeiture. To make matters more complex, generally old statutory language is removed via the passage of a new bill. So it’s not clear whether a “negative legislature,” unless its scope were very clearly and appropriately defined, would on net act to expand or reduce government power.

Huemer also suggested that he supports anarchy over limited government; he did not get into that issue during his talk, so I won’t get into it here. I’ll have more to say against anarchy later.

In all, Huemer’s talk is well worth watching. It is an excellent example of how an academic can make rigorous arguments to a popular audience. Academics should interact with the thinking public, and vice versa—as such provides checks and balances within American intellectual discourse.


Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views

“Should a president’s faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?” That’s what NBC’s Chuck Todd recently asked Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.

The obvious answer is that of course a candidate’s religious beliefs should matter to voters. For example, if a candidate wanted to outlaw homosexuality on the basis that it violates Biblical teachings, most Americans (including practically every leftist) would hold that such a religious belief properly disqualifies the candidate for office.

But that’s not what Carson said. Carson said a candidate’s faith should matter to voters “if it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America.” He added, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Carson’s answer introduced two serious confusions, and few of his critics have clearly sorted out the relevant issues. So let’s sort them out.

Carson first confused a candidate’s professed faith with a candidate’s particular religious views. There is a big difference between a candidate professing affiliation with some religious tradition and advocating particular faith-based policies.

Obviously, in today’s context, professed affiliation with any of the world’s major religions, such as Christianity (including its major variants such as Mormonism), Judaism, or Islam ought not automatically turn off a voter. Now, there are some religions, including Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses, that I regard as sufficiently kooky that I would never vote for a candidate who professed that religion. But, let’s face it, into the indefinite future nearly all elected officials in America will adhere to some religion or other, so we just can’t rule out candidates only because they profess religious affiliation.

I can imagine a future in which, rather than trump their religious affiliations, candidates run from religion—and that would be a huge improvement. Rather than candidates emphasizing their religious faith, they should say, in effect, “I’m culturally religious, but I don’t take religious beliefs very seriously, and I would never seek to impose religious beliefs by force of law.” Or they should openly profess no religious affiliation.

What voters should worry about are the particular religious beliefs a candidate holds and what those beliefs imply for the policies a candidate likely would pursue in office.

For example, to my mind, Carson’s faith-based rejection of evolution, by itself, disqualifies him for the presidency (even though he has distanced himself from “young earth” creationism).

Of course, Carson’s follow-up claim that every American Muslim wishes to impose Sharia law in America is absurd. Globally, Muslims express a vast range of political views. As I’ve expressed on Twitter, I’d rather vote for a nominal Muslim than for a fundamentalist Christian, other things equal.

Carson second confused what voters should take into account with what government should permit. As many of Carson’s critics have pointed out, the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for office.

At first it was unclear whether Carson was talking about a religious test or about advice for voters. But, in follow-up remarks, Carson said the president should be “sworn in on a stack of Bibles, not a Koran.” That’s pretty obviously the establishment of a religious test.

Unfortunately, some of Carson’s critics are hiding behind the “religious test” clause to pretend that all criticisms of a candidate’s religion are somehow off-limits. But obviously there is a huge difference between an individual voter judging a candidate’s religious views and government barring people of certain religions from running for office.

In this vein, for example, consider Bernie Sanders’s ridiculous comment: “You judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin, but on their ideas on what they stand for.” So, Sanders implies, a religion is akin to skin color, something inherited—which is obvious nonsense. A religion is a set of ideas pertaining to the nature of reality and man’s place in it, and, as such, it is something that individuals rightly judge in and out of the voting booth.

The left is missing a golden opportunity to make Carson drink his own medicine. If Muslim candidates should be judged—and rejected—for seeking to impose tenets of religious faith by force of law, then so should Christian candidates. And that standard would wipe out most of the current GOP contenders, including Carson himself.

An Idea for Inexpensive, Classy, Personal Photo Cards

Inexpensive Personalized Photo Cards
In today’s digital age, a hand-written note often stands out. But cards from the store are expensive and impersonal. An alternative is to print out personalized cards. But most home printers do a poor job printing photos on appropriate paper, places such as are great for running many copies of the same thing but bad at printing one-offs, and places such as Shutterfly print nice one-offs but they tend to be a little pricey.

My wife and I came up with a low-cost alternative, and we’re thrilled with the results. However, the idea does requires some design savvy. My wife is a graphic designer by trade, so we have Photoshop. You’ll need that or comparable software to get the job done, or else you’ll need to call in a favor from a designer or pay someone.

The idea is simply to print 3×4 inch photos from your collection (or from the public domain or Creative Commons) and glue a photo on a nice, blank card.

Why 3×4 inch? I’ve found that the least expensive photo prints are 4×6 inch (at Costco I pay just nine cents for a single photo). But that’s too large for your average card. So I asked my wife to place two photos evenly in a 4×6 inch grid (at 300 dpi), so one printed photo cut in half yields two cards. We made a large set these images, drawing on years of photographs.

I’ve found nice, blank cards for as low as a quarter each (I got mine at Michael’s), so the total cost of a card can be as low as thirty cents—much less than you’ll pay for good cards anywhere else, especially personalized ones.

I had some nice scenic photos from my own collection, as well as some great shots from my step-dad’s and grandparents’ collections. I asked my wife to add a credit line to the images, and the result is a set of intensely personal, attractive cards that bring back cherished memories for me and, I hope, for recipients as well.

Krannawitter’s Elegant Solution to Regulatory Overreach

Thomas Krannawitter
Thomas Krannawitter has a straight-forward but far-reaching proposal for reforming America’s overreaching regulatory state: Turn every federal regulatory agency into an advisory group, with the power to advise Congress but not pass or enforce regulations.

Krannawitter, formerly a professor at Hillsdale College and Colorado Christian University, presented his idea, and the reasons behind it, September 14 at Liberty on the Rocks, Flatirons. He is also working on a book on the topic.

Krannawitter began with a brief history of American governance. The Constitution, he said, is based on “wide, deep, mutual civic trust”—that is, trust in our fellow citizens as they pursue their own rights-respecting affairs—and deep distrust of those who wield government power. Hence, government officials, according to the Founders, should be bound by the “chains of the Constitution.”

By contrast, the regulatory state that arose early in the Twentieth Century was based on the notion that unelected, “scientific” regulators should act unchecked to chain the citizenry. Now government “regulates every aspect of human life conceivable,” Krannawitter said.

Next Krannawitter explained why, in his view, the regulatory state is unconstitutional. The Constitution vests legislative power solely in Congress, he explained, and it does not authorize Congress to delegate that power to any other entity. Although widely rejected today, his view is consistent with the original understanding of the Constitution. As legal scholar Rob Natelson writes in The Original Constitution, the Constitution “did not authorize Congress to delegate its functions to administrative agencies or to anyone else.”

But, as Krannawitter admitted, today many people simply don’t take the Constitution seriously. (I’d say that most people care about aspects of the Constitution but interpret it very loosely to fit their policy goals.) So it is crucially important to emphasize to the American people the practical case for reining in the regulatory state, he suggested.

Krannawitter made a convincing case given the short time he had to make it. (I expect his book will go into much greater detail.) Here I’ll highlight some of his main points:

  • Regulations act on the presumption of guilt. The regulated must continually prove to the regulators that they are in compliance with the regulations, or else they are treated as guilty of violating them.
  • Regulatory agencies overturn the separation of powers, incorporating legislative, executive, and even judicial powers in a single body.
  • Regulations tend to entrench the status quo and cut off innovative approaches to solving problems.
  • Whereas tort law partners responsibility with property rights, regulations often act to shield the regulated from responsibility—because they can give the excuse that they were in “regulatory compliance.”
  • Regulatory agencies tend to emphasize problems that they can “fix” so they can expand their budgets. “They’re not rewarded for success, they’re rewarded for failure,” Krannawitter said.
  • Unlike private business owners, who have a stake in the success or failure of their businesses, regulators have little or no personal stake in the consequences of their actions.

Krannawitter made a few missteps in his presentation. For example, he claimed that “regulations never drive prices down.” Usually regulations act to drive up prices, but not always. Anyway, whether regulations tend to drive prices up or down is peripheral to the question of whether regulations are appropriate. The proper purpose of government is to protect people’s rights, not to enforce or “encourage” (by force) bureaucratically approved price levels.

On the whole, though, Krannawitter did a fine job presenting an enormously complex topic in its essentials. Although his proposal for fixing the problem is politically impossible given the current class of Congressional “leaders,” and although it would not be a panacea even if passed, it is well worth promoting if only to encourage discussion about the many, deep problems of America’s regulatory state. Turn regulatory agencies into advisory committees. It’s a start.

Finally I Found a Use for Twitter Favorites

Twitter Favorites

I tolerate Facebook, but I love Twitter. Having posted nearly twenty-three-thousand Tweets over the years, I use Twitter almost daily to track the news and views of the day and to comment about it.

But one thing I never got was Twitter’s “favorite” feature. I thought, if you like another person’s post, why not just retweet it? A retweet notifies not only the person who posted it but everyone else who follows me.

But then I became a father, and I found that using my mobile device (my iPhone) one-handed often came in much handier than before. Thankfully, mobile Twitter allows for the use of lists, which I find essential for navigating Twitter. But a mobile does not allow for the flexibility of a desktop in terms of opening multiple windows, saving articles to Evernote, and the like.

My solution? I now use the “favorite” feature to track Tweets I want to check out later. I can read my lists on my mobile, read, retweet, or ignore the Tweets I have time to check then, and favorite Tweets I want to check out later.

So, earlier today, I favorited a few Tweets while feeding my son a bottle, then strapped my son in his Moby for a nap and loaded up my favorited Tweets on my desktop. (Actually, I use an Apple laptop exclusively now, but usually I use it the same way I used to use a dedicated desktop, so that’s how I usually think of it.)

Some favorited Tweets I retweeted, others I used to track news stories (such as a coming fight in Colorado over the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), and others I discovered to be not too interesting, after all.

In any case, I unfavorited the entire list when I was through. Basically, I used my favorites list as something like a Twitter inbox, then achieved “Twitter inbox zero” by clearing my favorites. I could also just leave everything favorited, but then I’d have to track where I left off, which I don’t want to do.

With this new use of Twitter favorites, Twitter for me just got a lot more flexible—ideal given my more adventurous schedule with baby.

A Great Course for Helping Children Learn Self-Control

How can parents help their children learn self-control? As a new father, I’m keenly interested to learn. (I’m also interested in improving my own self-control.) I was thrilled, then, to discover the Great Courses offering, “Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive” (currently on sale), taught by developmental psychologist Peter Vishton.

The course features twenty-four half-hour lectures, the first of which (on which I’ll focus) covers helping young children learn basic motor skills and older children learn self-control. Other lectures cover topics such as getting kids to eat their vegetables and the pros and cons of video games.

Vishton discusses the importance of “tummy time,” placing a supervised infant on his tummy so he can build muscles and coordination and, eventually, crawl. In this segment, I was especially interested in Vishton’s cross-cultural comparisons of swaddling practices and efforts to help infants develop.

To me, far more interesting was Vishton’s discussion of impulse control. Among other things, Vishton discusses the famous “marshmallow experiment,” in which children could eat a small treat immediately or wait for a larger treat. I had heard about this before, but Vishton fills in many fascinating details. For example, he describes how, at age three, most children were bad at delaying gratification, while, by age seven, most children were pretty good at it. He discusses a follow-up study finding that children who were good at controlling their impulses tended to be more successful later in life by a variety of measures.

So how can parents help? Vishton discussed a study of children taking Taekwondo, a type of martial art. Classes that emphasized self-control, the study found, helped children be more self-controlled generally. Another study that Vishton mentioned found similar results for yoga classes.

In all, the lecture surpassed my expectations. The production quality is fantastic, with good lighting and sets and an excellent lecturer. The video streaming was good overall, with just one glitch that resolved when we went back a minute.

This was the first set of video I’ve purchased from Great Courses. I’d purchased audio before, long ago, and decided to invest in some video courses on history, music, math, and science. I’m glad I added Vishton’s course to the mix.

I have just one complaint about the first lecture. Vishton discusses Taekwondo as an activity a parent might choose for a child. But what about what the child wants? As Craig Biddle writes in his recent article on parenting, “because our children’s use of their faculty of choice is what enables them to live proper human lives, we should enable them to choose their own values within the range of reasonable, life-serving, developmentally appropriate alternatives.” I would have enjoyed hearing Vishton’s thoughts on allowing a child to choose which activities to pursue and on whether and in what ways a parent should encourage a child to pursue activities that foster self-control. Without such a discussion, some parents might confuse fostering self-control with fostering mindless obedience. I’ll be interested to hear if Vishton addresses such matters in subsequent lectures in the series.

That minor complaint aside, I’m thrilled with the course, and look forward to watching more of the lectures from this and other courses. And, now that I’ve finished this brief review, I think indulging in a piece of chocolate is entirely appropriate.


The Expectant Parent’s Guerrilla Guide to Preeclampsia

c-sectionTrust me on this one: You do not want to first learn about preeclampsia the night your wife is diagnosed with a severe case of it, resulting in an emergency Caesarian delivery of your child.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Here’s what happened. In January, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant. This was something of a surprise, because we had been unable to get pregnant for years. What I think happened is that my wife’s fibroid embolization procedure in 2012 cleared a blockage (perhaps of the fallopian tubes), eventually allowing the pregnancy. We signed up at Mountain Midwifery near Denver, went to classes there, and planned on a normal delivery around August 15.

That’s not how things turned out. We went in to the Midwifery on July 10, and attendants there got high blood pressure readings for my wife of 163/96. This was a surprise, as my wife had not previously had trouble with high blood pressure. I didn’t know what was going on, and I had no idea how to gauge the seriousness of the reading. An attendant also tested my wife’s urine, and it showed high protein counts—an indication of possible kidney problems.

The Midwifery sent us to Swedish Hospital. The Midwifery’s relationship with Swedish to handle emergencies is a major reason why we chose the Midwifery. The thinking is that, for most cases of child delivery, you don’t need the intensive medical intervention of a hospital setting, but, in a small fraction of cases, you really do want access to all the technology and expertise that Western medicine offers. We turned out to be in the minority.

We saw a doctor at Swedish, and she confirmed that my wife had high blood pressure. She ordered an ultrasound to check the health of the fetus; thankfully, he was fine. She also rechecked my wife’s urine, and again found elevated protein.

My wife had preeclampsia. At the time, I had no idea what that meant. One thing I soon learned is that there are mild and severe forms of it. At first it was not clear where we were on that spectrum. At first, the doctors thought they might be able to send us home with some medications and deliver in a couple weeks. But, after my wife’s blood pressure did not respond well to medication, we heard the diagnosis of severe preeclampsia. That narrowed our options to inducing delivery right away or going in for a C-section. We started the induction process, but then, when a doctor found the fetus was breech (head up), we started prepping for a C-section.

One thing I appreciate about the staff at Swedish is that they gave us the information and the space to make an informed decision. Going in for a C-section was not an easy option to face, especially given that my wife had read extensively on traditional vaginal birth and was committed to that path. When I asked the staff to give us a few minutes to absorb the information and discuss our options, they gave us the space we needed.

The decision came down to two main facts. First, my wife’s preeclampsia was not going to improve, and was likely to get worse, until she delivered the baby. Second, the baby was breech, meaning that a vaginal birth was unlikely anyway. Everyone at Swedish was on board with the C-section, and so was our primary care doctor (with whom I was able to speak by phone). That wasn’t the path we had planned or thought much about, but, we soon realized, it was the medically optimal path for us given the circumstances. We both felt that we were making an informed decision and that we remained actively in control of our health. I will always be grateful to the staff at Swedish for giving us the information and time we needed to reach the conclusion on our own, rather than trying to push us into the procedure before we understood the relevant issues and had the time to absorb the emotional shock.

We went in for the C-section around two in the morning of July 11. My wife remained awake, and I could observe both sides of the sheet: my wife’s face and the doctors at work. Watching the C-section was another shock for me. What I had imagined is a doctor gently slicing open the belly, then reaching in with fingertips and gently pulling the baby out. But “gentle” is just not a word that applies to a C-section. I tried hard to conceal my shock so my wife couldn’t see it on my face.

The process was much more—shall we say active—than I had imagined. The main surgeon and her assistant forcefully cut through the belly, then the uterus, then pulled out the baby a limb at a time. At one point, it seemed that the surgeon’s whole arms disappeared into my wife’s belly. I thought for sure the baby would end up with broken bones (of course he didn’t, although he did have some bruising). I vividly remember my baby with his entire body out of the womb except for his head, which remained stuck inside. It was quite a process just to get the head out. Of course, during this process tubes sucked away the blood and amniotic fluid.

Child Birth Swedish HospitalFinally, baby delivered, the doctors stitched back together my wife’s uterus—as it sat atop her belly. “Is that normal?” I asked; I was assured it is. I even saw a couple of fibroids left from the embolization procedure. One larger fibroid was on the bottom of the uterus, which might have made a normal vaginal birth difficult or impossible, even had my wife not had preeclampsia.

I’ll pause here to praise the lead surgeon, Susan Peck. Her work during the surgery, as well as her interactions with us before and after the surgery, were outstanding. I’m convinced she shaved several weeks off my wife’s recovery time with her skillful work. “Beautiful” is sort of an odd word to refer to a surgical scar, but it is in fact beautiful as a mark of excellent work, and several staff members at Swedish used the term in that context, as did I.

My son owes his life largely to two doctors: Brooke Spencer, who performed the embolization procedure and thereby made his conception possible, and Susan Peck, who performed the C-section and thereby made his delivery possible.

The delivery finally over, my wife went to recovery while my son went to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). I spent the rest of the night wandering between my wife’s room and the baby’s room.

So what is preeclampsia? Please note that I am not a doctor or health professional of any kind, so nothing I discuss here is intended as medical advice. As far as I can tell, no one really knows what causes preeclampsia. They do know how to treat it, thankfully.

“Eclampsia” refers to seizures during pregnancy. So a preeclamptic woman is one at risk of suffering seizures or stroke. Here’s a summary from the Preeclampsia Foundation:

Preeclampsia is a disorder that occurs only during pregnancy and the postpartum period and affects both the mother and the unborn baby. Affecting at least 5-8% of all pregnancies, it is a rapidly progressive condition characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. Swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches and changes in vision are important symptoms; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. . . .

Globally, preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. By conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year.

Notably, my wife showed no external symptoms of the disease. But for the blood pressure test and subsequent tests for her kidneys and liver, we would not have known she was preeclamptic. That’s horrifying in retrospect, because I don’t know how long my wife had the problem (her previous blood pressure check was three weeks prior), and I imagine what might have happened had we not caught the disease when we did.

As Mayo points out, the precise causes of preeclampsia are unclear. One theory I heard is that the genetics of the placenta (and possibly the fetus) somehow trigger an autoimmune response (or something similar) in the woman.

The cure for preeclampsia is to give birth. However, as I learned, the “cure” can take some time to take hold. Doctors put my wife on a twenty-four hour magnesium drip soon after delivery to protect her from stroke and seizure. With the drip and with blood pressure medications, finally they got my wife’s blood pressure under control. However, once she went off the drip, we had another scary night with high blood pressure readings, so doctors put her back on the drip and increased the dosages of her other meds.

In all, we spent eight days in the hospital, a grueling slog that felt like it would never end. (Note to hospital equipment designers: Please stop making every single last piece of equipment beep unnecessarily and incessantly.)  Apparently, such severe residual preeclamptic symptoms are fairly rare in patients, so our doctors struggled a bit to get the meds right.

My wife continued to take blood pressure medication for another three weeks at home, until finally her readings returned to normal.

While my wife recovered from preeclampsia, my son developed in the NICU. The nurses there are excellent, and they helped train me to feed and care for my son.

We were delighted to learn that, thanks to the Mother’s Milk Bank, our son would be able to drink donated breast milk until my wife’s milk came in. This was a huge relief, as I was slightly horrified the last time I read the ingredients list of formula. I was so grateful that our son could have the best available nutrition.

At 35 weeks, our son was a premie but a relatively developed one. Some babies in the unit were far younger. Our son needed a feeding tube at first, in addition to pressurized air to help him breath. He also got the “hot box” and the jaundice light for a few days.

Our son spent ten days in the NICU, two days longer than my wife spent in the hospital. We were thankful to get everyone home, yet I was also grateful that we could stay at the hospital when we needed to. In general, we were extremely happy with Swedish from the moment we walked in the door until, finally, we drove away.

I had spent all my time planning for a “normal” vaginal birth in mid-August, so an emergency Caesarian delivery in early July was a difficult thing to adjust to. The time in the hospital was extremely stressful and exhausting. And we were in the middle of some major home projects—I thought I still had five more weeks—so coming home was not the restful and serene experience I had envisioned. But we made it through fine, and the results are excellent. We didn’t take quite the path we had planned, but we arrived at the same destination; ours is a success story.

So what are some of the take-home lessons for other expectant parents?

1. Learn the basics about preeclampsia early in pregnancy, so you are better equipped to handle it if it happens to you.

2. Plan for a “normal” delivery—I highly recommend the Mountain Midwifery if you’re in the Denver area—but have a contingency plan in case something goes wrong. The Midwifery’s contingency plan is to send patients with complications to Swedish, and, for us, that worked spectacularly well.

3. If you’re pregnant, consider buying a home blood pressure kit and taking your pressure every day or two. One doctor advised us to sit still for five minutes and have your arm level with your heart to take a pressure reading. If I had it to do over again, I’d take regular home readings to supplement doctors’ readings. That way, I’d have a better ability to notice sudden changes and promptly seek professional guidance if needed.

4. If you do end up with severe preeclampsia, take heart that modern doctors know how to handle it. You want to take the disease seriously, but there’s no need to worry excessively about it, given the technologies and expertise of modern medicine.

5. Be prepared for contingencies. Get your “to go” bag ready early on. Include earplugs and eye shades, as sleeping in a hospital can be challenging. Get your house in order early if you can. Line up someone to watch your house and your pets if necessary.

6. Prep yourself for the potential stresses of a hospital visit. During the first night at the hospital, I did not sleep a wink, so I started the process utterly exhausted. It was a very busy and stressful time.

7. Be an advocate for yourself or your patient while respecting the time and expertise of hospital staff. Generally, we had very positive interactions with everyone at Swedish—something made easier because Swedish is an excellent hospital. However, I had a couple of unnecessarily testy exchanges with doctors, largely because I was tired and stressed; I later apologized to those doctors and we resumed a good working relationship.

8. Do what you can to get mother with baby, but recognize the limitations of the hospital setting. At first, I did not understand why baby could not be in the same room as mother. Then it became apparent to me: The NICU is very specialized, as is the Labor and Delivery ward, so sometimes it’s not feasible to keep mother and baby together. That said, do try to facilitate meetings of mom and baby until they can get into the same room or come home.

To me, preeclampsia was terrifying. But largely that’s because I didn’t know what it is or how doctors treat it. If you’re an expectant parent, do yourself a favor and spend a bit of time reading about the disease and preparing for the possibility of going through it. Then you can take comfort in the knowledge that most pregnant women don’t get preeclampsia, and, if a pregnant woman does get it, doctors are in a great position to effectively treat it. Preeclampsia is a problem for some women, but a manageable one with modern medicine.


What Is Ayn Rand’s “New” Novel, “Ideal?”

Ideal by Ayn Rand
A new publication of a work of one of the 20th century’s most read (and most controversial) novelists is big news. Ideal is the work at issue; Ayn Rand is the author. So what is Ideal?

Ideal is not new; it was written in 1934 and revised as a play over the next year or two. (The play wasn’t produced until 1989.) What’s new is the publication of Rand’s early novelization of the story.

The play was published in 1983 in The Early Ayn Rand. The new publication contains the novelization which preceded the play—and which is substantially less polished—as well as a reprint of the play. The oddity, then, is that the “new” work is in rougher shape than is the previously published version of the work.

What, then, is the purpose of publishing an older version of the same basic story? Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s heir, suggests two main reasons in his introduction to the new work. First, a publication of one of Ayn Rand’s earliest works, and in two different versions at that, may offer valuable insights into her intellectual and literary development. Second, a novel offers a reader a complete, self-contained experience in a way that a play cannot.

On this latter point, Peikoff explains:

By itself, a script is not a work of art or a genre of literature. Novel and play alike, being complete, enable you fully to enter and experience the world they create. But the script by itself does not: it omits the essence in this context of literary art; it is written for perception (to be heard from a cast of actors seen on a stage), yet by itself it is detached from any such perception.

As an indication of just how substantially Rand revised the play relative to the preliminary novel, consider Peikoff’s description of a section:

In Chapter 3 of the novel, the central character is Jeremiah Sliney, an ignorant, dialect-speaking farmer. On her typescript, even before she started the play, AR slashed out the whole chapter, with ruthless lines signifying emphatic rejection. . . . Dropping Sliney from the play, she instead took the name of a son-in-law of his, who had been an incidental character, and made him the scene’s central character. In this reincarnation, Chuck Fink [the new character] has an ideological identity: he is a member of the Communist Party.

By any standard, that is a major change. Yet the “new” publication contains the original text, despite Rand’s rejection of it. Peikoff writes, “Despite [Rand]’s deletion of Slinky, I have left him in the novel just as he was in its first draft.” Peikoff puts readers on notice, then, that this novelization does not reflect a polished, final work that Rand herself approved. Rather, it reflects a work in progress.

Why did Rand develop the material into a play rather than into a revised novel? I had assumed that the reason had something to do with Rand’s anticipation of getting a play produced. But Peikoff suggests literary reasons. First, Peikoff suggests, the beauty of the central character is integral to the story, and that is probably better shown than described. Second, the play format seems to have allowed Rand to introduce a wide array of minor characters more perceptually and therefore more briskly.

What is Ideal about? Peikoff offers a good summary in notes published with the 1983 version:

[Ideal is] a story in which a famous actress, so beautiful that she comes to represent to men the embodiment of their deepest ideals, actually enters the lives of her admirers. She comes in a context suggesting that she is in grave danger. Until this point, her worshippers have professed their reverence for her—in words, which cost them nothing. Now, however, she is no longer a distant dream, but a reality demanding action on their part, or betrayal.

“The theme is the evil of divorcing ideals from life,” Peikoff writes there.

That is a theme well worth contemplating in novel form, even if the novel in question does not reflect Ayn Rand in mature literary form.

Colorado’s Orwellian Consumer Use Tax Statutes

If you live in Colorado, likely you are technically a criminal—and possibly a felon—under Colorado tax law. By my reading of Colorado statutes, you’re a criminal if you’ve purchased items from out of state, either while traveling or through mail order (such as through Amazon), on which sales tax has not been collected, if you have not paid the “consumer use tax” on the item. Due to widespread ignorance of the relevant tax laws and lack of enforcement, most people do not pay the “consumer use tax”—or even know they’re legally supposed to pay it.

The Colorado legislature could implement a relatively simple fix for this problem. As I write in an article for Complete Colorado (also published by the Greeley Tribune), the legislature could exempt, “say, a person’s first $6,000 per year in out-of-state purchases—that’s $500 per month—from consumer use taxes.” That simple reform would turn many or most Coloradans from criminals into non-criminals.

I’ve been amazed by how many people are unaware of the consumer use tax laws. I talked with one state legislator who had never even heard of this tax. (I wonder how many state legislators technically are criminals under the law.) I talked with a former state legislator who claimed the consumer use tax is due only for items purchased from businesses with an in-state presence—which is not the case. (Out-of-state retailers have to collect Colorado sales tax if they have a Colorado presence, such as a retail outlet or warehouse, but this isn’t relevant to the consumer use tax.) So let’s explore what the rules are.

Here’s how the Colorado Department of Revenue summarizes the tax:

Consumer use tax must be paid by Colorado residents and businesses on purchases (items used for personal or business purposes, not resold) that did not include Colorado sales tax, such as those made over the Internet, by mail order, or by telephone. Consumer use tax is payable to the state by individuals and businesses when sales tax is due but has not been collected. Individuals and businesses have always been required to pay sales or use tax on taxable purchases from out-of-state vendors if the item is sold, leased, or delivered in Colorado for use, storage, distribution, or consumption in the state.

Colorado state use tax is the same rate as the sales tax. With proof of payment, sales tax paid to another state may be credited against state use tax due in Colorado for a particular item. Use tax is also collected by some local governments and special districts.

And here’s what various statutes say (as linked via the Colorado legislature page):

39-26-202(b): On and after January 1, 2001, there is imposed and shall be collected from every person in this state a tax or excise at the rate of two and ninety one-hundredths percent of storage or acquisition charges or costs for the privilege of storing, using, or consuming in this state any articles of tangible personal property purchased at retail.

39-26-204(1)(b) [Article 26, Sales and Use Tax; Part 2, Use Tax]: (b) Every person who is subject to the provisions of this part 2 who uses, stores, or consumes tangible personal property not in the conduct of a business, which is purchased either inside or outside this state, who has not paid the sales or use tax imposed by this article to a retailer, shall make a return and remit the tax annually, at the time the Colorado income tax of such person is due and payable as provided in article 22 of this title, on forms prescribed by the executive director, showing in detail the tangible personal property stored, used, or consumed by said persons within this state for the preceding taxable year.

(c) All such returns shall be subscribed by the taxpayer or his agent and shall contain a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury in the second degree.

39-26-206: Any person who willfully fails or refuses to make the return required in section 39-26-204, or who makes a false or fraudulent return, or who willfully fails to pay any tax owing by him, and any person who aids or abets another in an attempt to evade such tax, shall be punished as provided by section 39-21-118.

39-21-118: (1) Any person who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax administered by the department or the payment thereof, in addition to other penalties provided by law, is guilty of a class 5 felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-401, C.R.S., or shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred thousand dollars, or five hundred thousand dollars in the case of a corporation, or by both such fine and imprisonment, together with the costs of prosecution.

(2) Any person required, or any person who purports to be required, under any title administered by the department to collect, account for, or pay over any tax, who willfully fails to collect or truthfully account for or pay over such tax, including, but not limited to, willfully making a materially false statement in connection with an application for a refund of any tax for the purpose of falsely obtaining a refund of such tax, in addition to other penalties provided by law, is guilty of a class 5 felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-401, C.R.S., or shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred thousand dollars, or five hundred thousand dollars in the case of a corporation, or by both such fine and imprisonment, together with the costs of prosecution.

(2.5) Any person who through gross negligence or recklessness makes a materially false statement in applying for a refund pursuant to section 39-26-703 or any other person who makes a false statement in connection with an application for a refund is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than ninety days, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

By my reading of Colorado statutes, then, every Coloradan who buys items out of state, on which sales tax has not been collected, is legally required to pay the consumer use tax. (Please note that I am not a lawyer, and the statutes can be very confusing and difficult to interpret. To date, though, no one has offered any evidence that my reading is wrong.)

But are Coloradans who don’t pay the use tax actually felons? Note that statute 39-21-118(1) refers to “willful” evasion of the tax. This presents the Kafkaesque scenario in which, if you don’t know about the use tax, you’re not a felon, but if you do know about it and don’t pay it, you are a felon. So it could very well be that simply by reading this article and learning you’re legally supposed to pay the consumer use tax, you have become a felon (you’re welcome).

Obviously, what is “willful” as opposed to unwillful is largely a matter of interpretation. And what is the meaning of the line about “any person who purports to be required” to pay the tax? Does that mean that, simply by saying you owe any tax, whether or not you’re mistaken about the statutes, you owe it? These statutes are absurd, and they open to door to prosecutorial abuse.

If I could, I would simply do away with all sales taxes and use taxes, even if that meant increasing state income taxes in a revenue-neutral way. Such a far-reaching reform seems unlikely in the near future. However, the modest proposal I’ve offered, to exempt a person’s first $6,000 per year in out-of-state purchases from consumer use taxes, would go a long way toward solving the problem of unjustly criminalizing vast numbers of Coloradans.

Quick Reflections on the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Decision

Today the Supreme Court issued a momentous decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. Here I collect my brief reflections on the matter in the form of embedded Tweets.

Why Not Send All Colorado Bills to a Floor Vote?

Yesterday I waded into the middle of the conflict between Rocky Mountain Gun Owners RMGO and the Independence Institute regarding strategy over gun magazine restrictions. (This morning Mandy Connell discussed my article on KHOW, and Dudley Brown called in to explain his position.) Related, yesterday RMGO* also tried a bizarre procedural move to force a floor vote of the bill to repeal the magazine restrictions.

The leftist ColoradoPols has a write-up about this. According to a Democratic media release it quotes, “Rep. Everett moved to amend the journal to overturn the work of the committee and show that SB15-175 passed.” That is certainly an, uh, interesting tactic. Obviously if a Democrat tried that with Republican leadership, Republicans would explode in anger. (I’ve emailed Everett about this and will update this article if he replies.)*

But, RMGO* antics aside, the episode gave me an idea: Why not send all bills to a floor-wide vote? The legislature would still have committees, and the committees would still hear testimony. But, rather than vote a bill up or down, a committee would offer a recommendation on a bill and send it on to the entire body for a vote.

The idea behind the committee vote, presumably, is that a small group of legislators can specialize in a certain area and weed out the unworthy bills. But, in practice, legislative leadership routinely use committees to kill bills they don’t like. Certain committees are informally known as “kill committees”; they are where leadership sends bills so that their reliable colleagues in safe seats can vote them down. Yes, committees hear testimony, but in many or most cases this testimony is entirely irrelevant to the outcome of the bill: Often legislators know how they will vote, and how each of the other committee members will vote, before the hearing even starts.

One purpose of “kill committees” is to shield other members of the leadership’s party from having to take uncomfortable positions on controversial topics. This is good for the party in power, but it is bad for constituents, and it is bad for the democratic process. (I’m not a democrat, but I do see value in citizen oversight of government.)

Of course, if every bill were brought to a floor vote, each legislator would have to vote on many more bills than is currently the case. I regard that as a benefit of the plan, not a bug. It might discourage legislators from introducing so damn many bills.

If this plan were implemented, it might also make sense to change how floor votes are conducted. Here is one possibility: Once a bill made it through committee, legislators could register their vote for a bill whenever they wanted. They could vote yes, no, or abstain. Once every legislator cast a vote, the bill would be declared passed or failed. If, by the end of the session, a legislator had not cast a vote, his vote would be “abstain” by default.

At this point, my proposal is preliminary. I’d want to learn some additional facts before committing to it, including these: Is this done in any other state government? [April 20 Update: Paul Jacob tells me that New Hampshire does this. Rob Natelson tells me North Dakota does, too.] Is there any consequence to the system I’m not foreseeing? Would this require a citizens’ initiative to implement? Offhand, though, putting every bill to a floor vote seems like a great idea.

April 20 Update: This plan is compatible with floor debate for each vote. Then voting would start at the end of the floor debate. Also, I’m not sure how the legislature works now on this issue, but it seems to me that a bill should pass only if a majority plus one vote to pass it, counting all the “abstain” votes. Another variant: Rather than send all bills to the floor, committees could rule, unless a third (plus one) of a body’s members called for a floor vote, in which case a bill would go to the floor even if the committee voted no.

* April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett emailed me and stated that, contrary to the claims of ColoradoPols, “RMGO wasn’t involved” in the floor action. (RMGO PAC endorsed Everett last year.) He further states “it was a legit way to get the mag ban to the floor.” April 18 Update: RMGO’s Dudley Brown, however, explicitly claims participation in the legislative move.

Observations about the Colorado Gun Magazine Spat

Dudley Brown

Dudley Brown

If you’re a gun-rights activist, is it better to have a law that restricts gun magazines to fifteen rounds or to thirty rounds? The answer might seem obvious: Laws that violate rights less are less-bad than laws that violate rights more. So of course Rocky Mountain Gun Owners opposed a recent attempt to ease Colorado’s magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds—waging a nasty smear campaign along the way.

In 2013, House Bill 1224 banned “the transfer of gun magazines holding more than 15 rounds,” as I reviewed that year.

This year, various Colorado Republican legislators attempted to repeal the magazine restrictions. An April 15 email from the National Rifle Association summarizes: “SB [Senate Bill] 175, introduced by state Senators Chris Holbert (R-30) and John Cooke (R-13), would have repealed [the] anti-gun piece of legislation passed into law during the 2013 legislative session that arbitrarily limits the number of rounds of ammunition you can use to protect yourself and your family to 15.” (People can keep the larger magazines they already own but not legally acquire new ones in the state.) A house committee killed that bill on April 15.

No serious person actually thought the Democrat-controlled state house would repeal the magazine restrictions; the purpose of the legislation was to keep up awareness of the issue.

However, there was an outside chance that Democrats might support a measure to ease the magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds; apparently Democrat Joe Salazar indicated he would. [April 20 Update: Salazar suggested this in a video with Revealing Politics.] The idea was for some legislator to run a late bill on the matter. Jon Caldara and Dave Kopel, president and research director (respectively) for the Independence Institute (II), supported that proposal. Dudley Brown and his Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) opposed it. The proposal seems to be dead at this point.

I don’t think there was much chance of such a measure passing. (I contacted Salazar via email and voice mail to ask him about the proposal, but I haven’t heard back from him.) However, it was perfectly reasonable for gun-rights activists to pursue such a proposal. But RMGO doesn’t do reasonable. It does smear.

On April 13, RMGO published a Facebook post calling the thirty-round proposal the “Kopel Kompromise.” The post continued, “Does Michael Bloomberg have a sleeper cell in Colorado? All of a sudden David Kopel is fighting as hard as he can to save the Magazine Ban by gutting SB15-175, the repeal bill. Maybe its because he’s a ‘lifelong registered Democrat’ and a ‘Ralph Nader’ voter.”

Kopel is one of the most important Second Amendment scholars in the world and an outspoken critic of Bloomberg’s gun-restriction proposals. RMGO’s insinuation that he’s somehow secretly and intentionally working to promote Bloomberg’s agenda is a slanderous lie.

It is also flatly untrue that Kopel wanted to “gut” bill 175; I’ll get to the pertinent details momentarily.

RMGO claims on Facebook (in a comment) that the II “started it”—because apparently you’re never too old for kindergarten. RMGO claims that posting the message about Kopel is “[o]nly returning the favor. Caldara (and by extension, Kopel) started it by claiming we were working with Bloomberg.” I doubt very seriously that Caldara publicly claimed that RMGO is “working with Bloomberg.” (It would be wrong and foolish to say such a thing.) Caldara has claimed, and rightly so, that RMGO is in effect furthering Bloomberg’s agenda by undercutting the effort to ease the restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds. Regardless of what Caldara said about RMGO, RMGO was quite wrong to smear Kopel.

RMGO also stated in a Facebook post targeting Caldara: “Anti-gun State Rep. Joe Salazar is floating a so-called ‘compromise’ proposal that’ll virtually guarantee Bloomberg’s Magazine Ban will be PERMANENT and unrepealable. Worse, establishment lobbyists like Jon Caldara are backing it by attacking RMGO members and supporters. Please . . . urge lawmakers to oppose the Salazar-Caldara ‘Permanent Magazine Ban Amendment.’ Insist they pass SB15-175 without amendment and repeal the Mag Ban in its entirety.”

RMGO’s claims about the politics of the proposals are implausible, as I’ll explain later. (Notice that RMGO neglected to point out the nature of the “compromise” in question.) For now consider merely what the legislative proposal was.

I’ve communicated with Kopel and Caldara by email, and with Holbert by phone, and they agree that amending 175 was never on the table; the plan was for a late bill. Caldara states, “Dudley was trying to confuse the issue saying that we wanted to change SB-175, which couldn’t be changed that way even if we want to. We want the Senate Republicans to pass a change to the current mag ban from 15 to 30 in a brand new late bill. Dudley won’t allow his followers to vote for that. He and Bloomberg don’t want Coloradans to have 30 rounds mags.”

As Holbert told me by phone (and as he’s also said on Facebook), there never was a late bill to ease the magazine restrictions. He said, “It’s frustrating for me that people have been drawing lines and taking sides on something that wasn’t real.” He granted that a late bill was a theoretical possibility; however, he said he’s heard from leadership that they don’t want late bills. (It’s unclear whether Salazar would have seriously supported any magazine bill.) Interestingly, senate president Bill Cadman just introduced a late bill regarding fetal homicide, so evidently late bills are not totally off the table.

I asked Holbert if he would vote for easing the restrictions to 30 rounds, and he said no. It’s hard to see why anyone would run the bill, knowing that RMGO’s own favored legislators would torpedo it. So it seems to me that Holbert wants it both ways: He wants to say that voting on the proposal was never a real possibility, but he actively discouraged it from becoming a real possibility by declaring he’d oppose it.

Holbert echoed RMGO’s position, that a “compromise” measure would make it “all but impossible to repeal [the ban] if the numbers moved to thirty.”

That claim, that easing the restrictions now would make repealing them later impossible, is frankly silly. The only way the magazine restrictions will be repealed is if the Republicans recapture both sides of the legislature and probably the governor’s mansion as well. It’s not enough to pull some Democrats over from a Democrat-controlled body, because leadership can kill any bill it wants. If Republicans were to regain control of state government across the board—by the way, something that’s extremely unlikely into the foreseeable future—then it would be just as easy for Republicans to repeal a thirty-round law as a fifteen-round law. Indeed, in some ways it would be easier to repeal a thirty-round law, because the marginal change from that to an outright repeal would be less dramatic.

So, if your goal is to ultimately repeal the magazine ban, passing a marginal reform now would be the best move toward that goal. (If, on the other hand, your goal is to keep your members angry and writing checks, RMGO’s strategy may make more sense.)

[April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett send me an email in which he states that, if easing the magazine restrictions to thirty rounds “was doable, then we would never get a full magazine ban repeal because there would be no political will to do so even on the Republican side. Trust me, I serve with these people.” I don’t buy it.]

The underlying substantive issue is whether any sort of political compromise or piecemeal reform is appropriate. The view expressed by Holbert and RMGO, that easing a rights-violating law is wrong because it makes repealing the law harder, is frankly insane, and no rational person would attempt to treat the principle as a universal. Not even Dudley Brown would attempt to do so.

Take the example of background-registration checks. In 2000 I worked with Brown to oppose Amendment 22, the measure (which passed) to extend registration checks to private sales at gun shows. In 2013, Colorado government passed House Bill 1229 to expand registration checks to almost all gun sales. Would Brown argue that it would be wrong to repeal Bill 1229 or Amendment 22, on the grounds that doing so would not totally repeal background-registration checks? Obviously not. Brown would do exactly what he blasts Kopel for trying to do: seek piecemeal reform.

Or consider the example of taxation. I think taxation is wrong and ultimately should be replaced by voluntary financing of government. But obviously I’m not going to torpedo any effort to marginally reduce tax rates and government spending, on the pretext that doing so would make taxes harder to repeal; that would be insane.

By Brown’s “logic,” voting for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was wrong because it still allowed increases in government spending.

By Brown’s “logic,” any effort to ease regulations on businesses should be opposed, so long as any regulations remain.

By Brown’s “logic,” Lincoln should be condemned for his Emancipation Proclamation on the grounds that it did not totally end slavery.

Brown’s position regarding magazine restrictions is essentially that he wants the law to be as rights-violating and damaging as possible, so that people are motivated to repeal it. By that “logic,” if the restrictions were set at five rounds, he’d oppose easing them to fifteen. If magazines were totally banned, he’d oppose legalizing any gun magazines if they were restricted in any way.

Usually I’m the first to quote Ayn Rand’s remarks about compromise, and I agree with them. But it is no compromise of principles to accept an incremental reform on the path to consistently good policy. To hold otherwise is to deny any possibility for incremental improvements.

I should mention that I know both Brown and Kopel personally; I’m probably the only person in the world to have worked (on contract and at different times) for both RMGO and the II. I first met Brown in 1998. I’ve always admired Brown’s talents as a political operative, and on a personal level I’ve generally found him to be an amiable guy. But in this case he’s sacrificed gun rights for the sake of smearing Kopel, whom he has long disliked. It would be pleasant if Brown would refrain from being a vindictive and hypocritical jerk. I won’t hold my breath.

Penn Jillette Reminds Denver Crowd to Defend Liberty for “Crazies” Too

penn-jilletteAs you gain political power, Penn Jillette told the conservatives and free market advocates at the Independence Institute’s 30th Anniversary Founders’ Night banquet, be sure to remember the “nuts” and “crazies” and defend their liberty, too. After all, he said, we can’t have a free society unless people have the “freedom to be stupid.”

The Institute’s president Jon Caldara is an edgy guy who often pushes the boundaries of humor. But I could tell he was a little nervous that  Jillette, an outspoken atheist known for his Bullshit! Showtime series, might prove too controversial for his more conservative supporters. His hand-wringing was unnecessary. Jillette delivered an earnest and heartfelt speech (while pacing the stage without notes) that appealed to most everyone in the room. I had seen Penn & Teller’s magic show in Las Vegas, so I knew Jillette to be a talented entertainer, but I was surprised by how polished and engaging a public speaker he is.

Jillette gave as good a presentation for the standard libertarian argument that “government is force” as I’ve ever seen. He talked about the many hours he’d spent at his local library as a child and about his love for NPR. Yet, he said, he could not justify pointing the guns of government at people to force them to help finance such projects. He once turned down a government grant for a project because “our show was too damn good” for that. “Guns don’t belong in art,” he said.

Jillette also talked about the trap of cynicism, and how he had once fallen into that trap by assuming that many people would watch Bullshit! because they hated it. Instead, although many people were critical of the show, usually they expressed their criticism politely and constructively. Telling a person “you’re wrong” directly grants them a certain respect, he said; it’s recognizing “you’re an American” and seeing robust debate as part of what we’re about as a nation.

Incidentally, Jillette looked fantastic; he has recently lost over a hundred  pounds by changing his diet.

The Institute also presented its annual David S. D’Evelyn Award to George Caulkins, a veteran Marine helicopter pilot active with the Alliance for Choice in Education.

I also received the Vern Bickel Award for Grassroots Leadership. (I had only 20 seconds on stage, so I thanked the Institute and jokingly presented Caldara with a Hillary Clinton Nutcracker.) Mike Rosen graciously introduced me. I very much appreciate this recognition by the Institute and all the well-wishes expressed by my friends and associates.


How Various Media Botched an Abortion Story and Defamed GOP Rep. Barbieri

No one can reasonably question my pro-choice credentials—I’ve been a vocal opponent of the so-called “personhood” measures in Colorado; I’ve coauthored a paper defending a woman’s right to seek an abortion; and I’ve coauthored the article, “The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties.” So, as a matter of policy, on this issue I stand opposed to Idaho’s Republican state representative Vito Barbieri, who is anti-abortion and who advocates legal restrictions of abortion.

But just because Barbieri is wrong on the issues, doesn’t mean he deserves to be lied about and defamed—yet what various media outlets have done precisely is lie about Barbieri, take his remarks grossly out of context, and defame him.

I advocate legal abortion, but I do not advocate only that; among many other things, I also advocate honesty in media and basic human decency.  The media outlets in question have failed both those tests. Because initially I was suckered by their dishonest reports, and because I published a Tweet mocking Barbieri (which I subsequently corrected), I now feel some responsibility to help set the record straight.

The context, according to an Associated Press article by Kimberlee Kruesi, was that the Idaho legislature was hearing “testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.” A doctor who testified against the bill, Julie Madsen, drew a comparison to a camera swallowed for a colonoscopy, which can be useful in telemedicine. To this, Barbieri sensibly inquired whether a camera might also be useful for a chemically-induced abortion—the topic at hand—and Madsen admitted it cannot be useful for that, because, she said, “swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.” In other words, Madsen is the one who brought up swallowed cameras, and Barbieri is the one who pointed out that swallowed cameras are useless when it comes to investigating a pregnancy. As Kuesi reports, “Barbieri later said that the question was rhetorical and intended to make a point.” By any reasonable interpretation of the events, that is obviously what happened.

Yet numerous media outlets completely reversed the facts to make it seem as though Barbieri thought a swallowed camera might be useful for pregnancy, and that Madsen was “educating” him that the digestive tract is not connected to the vagina. But that was precisely the fact of which Barbieri was reminding Madsen, to point out that that portion of her testimony was, in his view, off-topic.

To get the flavor of the defamatory remarks that various “journalists” made about Barbieri, see articles published by the Washington Post, MSNBCSlate, Huffington Post, People, and Jezebel.

As soon as I read Barbieri’s remarks in context, it was pretty clear that various media reports about those remarks were flatly wrong. So I did something that is apparently unusual in the world of journalism today: I actually contacted Barbieri to get his side of the story. His comments square perfectly with the account I’ve given; here is what he emailed me, in full:

Thank you for contacting me in regard to my comments in the House State Affairs committee. Unfortunately, this is an example of the media taking an issue and warping it to fulfill their own agenda.

Please review the remarks made in context.

While discussing the efficacy of long-distance ‘telemedicine’, the doctor testifying was making an invalid comparison between two vastly different medical procedures, citing a colonoscopy was many times more dangerous than a chemical abortion. I was highlighting the absurdity of this comparison by taking her example of a patient swallowing a camera capsule to ascertain the condition of that patient’s digestive tract “from thousands of miles away” (her words) and, by asking my question, emphasizing that such technology could not be used in the case of a pregnant woman.

With respect to the issue at hand: It is a paramount responsibility of the Legislature to act for the benefit of the health and safety of all its citizens. To that end, and to protect the expectant mother, this bill proposed a physician must first physically examine her prior to dispensing these powerful chemicals. The first chemical will deprive the baby of nutrients which of course starves her/him to death and then, the second chemical, induces hemorrhaging thereby expelling the fetus. The expectant mother is home, alone, having no idea whether the amount of bleeding she is experiencing is normal for this procedure or is the product of a serious complication. This bill merely requires a doctor to physically examine the woman and should be at hand and available in the latter case.

Here is a transcript of the full exchange (with thanks to Betsy Russell, from the Spokesman Review, you can link to a copy of her blog “Eye on Boise” here):

Barbieri: “You mentioned the risk of colonoscopy , can that be done by drugs?”

Dr. Julie Madsen: “It cannot be done by drugs. It can, however, be done remotely where you swallow a pill and this pill has a little camera, and it makes its way through your intestines and those images are uploaded to a doctor who’s often thousands of miles away, who then interprets that.”

Barbieri: “Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”

Madsen: “It cannot be done in pregnancy, simply because when you swallow a pill, it would not end up in the vagina.” (Hoots of laughter from the audience)

Barbieri: “Fascinating. That certainly makes sense, doctor.”

Again, thanks for sharing your perspective on this very important issue and know I will continue to be steadfast in protecting woman’s health as well as the unborn.

Rep. Vito Barbieri
District 2

Now, as a matter of policy, I think Barbieri is clearly wrong. Doctors are more than competent to determine whether telemedicine is safe and appropriate regarding chemically-induced abortions. (Further, doctors’ insurance providers will take steps to ensure they are competent; otherwise, the doctors would get sued.) Further, I think Barbieri’s concerns about bleeding are a mere rationalization to mask his deeper, anti-abortion agenda. On that point, Madsen’s comments are on-topic, for they show that Barbieri (apparently) wants to restrict telemedicine only with respect to abortion, not with respect to other medical conditions.

Barbieri’s policy position is, in my view, unjustifiable—which means that it can be defeated based on facts and logic. Defaming Barbieri, as various media outlets have done, only distracts attention away from the important issues at hand and makes Barbieri’s supporters quite legitimately feel persecuted by a dishonest media.

I will hold out hope that the journalists who defamed Barbieri are in fact journalists, and that they have enough journalistic integrity to publish corrections and apologize to Barbieri.

Loss Aversion, Capuchin Monkeys, and Customer Relations

By coincidence I read about loss aversion today in Superfreakonomics, then experienced it for myself some hours later. (I’d read the material before, but I wanted a refresher.) The book tells the story (pp. 212–14) of economist Keith Chen training a group of capuchin monkeys to trade tokens (“coins”) for food. At one point Chen and his researchers offered the monkeys either a single grape or two grapes, but, half the time, by chance, they’d add a second grape to the single grape or else subtract a grape from the pair. So, on average, a monkey got 1.5 grapes, and it was statistically irrelevant whether the initial offering was a single grape or two grapes.

But it was not irrelevant to the monkey’s behavior. The monkeys “strongly preferred the one-grape researcher”; they “behaved as if the pain from losing a grape was greater than the pleasure from gaining one,” the book relates. That is, the monkeys experienced loss aversion.

Later in the day I experienced something a little like that. After I referred a friend to my dentist, the dentist sent me a very nice, hand-written note thanking me for my referral; I received the note today. At first I was thrilled: “What a nice gesture, and a nice way to build customer loyalty,” I thought. But then my dentist urged me to “enjoy the enclosed gift card” that was a token of his thanks. I must have left the gift card behind in the envelope, I thought—but no. In irritation I thought, “So where’s my freakin’ gift card?”

Then I remembered the capuchins. Although I never actually had the gift card (much less whatever goods or services it might have procured for me), I thought I had it, and I momentarily felt perturbed that I’d “lost” it. In a flash, I my emotions had turned from gratitude to annoyance. But how silly, I thought; it was still very nice for my dentist to send me a hand-written note, and the fact that he or an assistant accidentally neglected to add the gift card made me no worse off than I was before.

The lesson for businesses is to not disappoint customers by offering them things you can’t deliver. It’s better not to promise something than to promise it and not deliver it. (Of course, businesses can overcome failure to deliver something by apologizing, explaining context, and so on.)

The lesson for individuals is to remember that we are wired for loss aversion—but we are also wired with the intellectual capacity to recognize that there are contexts in which our “gut” may lead us astray here. If someone offers us two dollars gratis but then delivers only one, it’s still a good thing that we got a dollar. And I should let my irritation over the “lost” gift card fade away, and focus on my gratitude that my dentist recognized my referral. It really was a nice gesture on his part.

In short, don’t let loss aversion make a monkey out of you.