State of the Union

Derek Khanna Talks Cellphone Unlocking Victory, Copyright

After a popular online campaign to legalize cellphone unlocking, which allows a consumer to change the settings on a phone in order to use it on a different wireless network, the president is about to sign the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law. It will legalize unlocking until the Librarian of Congress, who administers the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, reviews exemptions again next year.

The law is a significant victory for copyright reform activists like Derek Khanna, whose 2012 memo for the Republican Study Committee on how current copyright law stifles the free market set the tone for reform (after it got him fired). Khanna has called the ban on cellphone unlocking a denial of “a fundamental tenet of property rights; which is the ability to modify your own property.”

I spoke to Khanna to learn more about where the copyright reform movement will go from here.

A Democratic president standing up for consumer choice certainly represents a sort of conversational victory, but the law itself is something of a temporary fix. Are you happy with how the bill turned out?

Yes. It’s a short-term bill—this needed to be addressed urgently—but at the same time, Congress is considering other long-term fixes. To that end, there are ongoing copyright hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.

The tech field is fast-paced, while American government is purposefully slow-moving by design and by politics. How can Congress ensure the laws are keeping pace with the technologies they regulate?

The particular problem is that Washington hears only one narrow perspective on these issues. A lot of what I call “the forces of the status quo” have lobbyists that make their voices heard. Entrepreneurs and smaller business owners aren’t really being represented, so in Washington they almost don’t know what their regulations are preventing.

As you noted in your cover story for TAC earlier this summer, Republicans only took action on this legislation after the White Houses endorsement, which in turn followed a public outpouring of support. Will it always take that kind of massive push to get congressional Republicans to move forward on regulatory reform?

I hope not. I hope Republicans take the initiative. Our whole campaign here was based on the free market, which Republicans run on across the country. But they’re one step behind on technology, which is a shame, because that’s where the modern economy is.

But they’re starting to turn around on this. Congressmen like Thomas Massie and Jason Chaffetz are real leaders on this issue. The Young Guns Network, which represents Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, included a section on regulatory reform in their “Room to Grow” report. It goes out of the way to say we need wholesale copyright reform and makes a very enthusiastic plea for IP reform. It even directly cites my RSC memo. So these things take a long time, but there are real successes.

Tech policy is a straightforward way to win over the youth vote, but Republicans don’t seem to have noticed. Do you think that disconnect is purely generational? Can young conservatives just hope the party grows out of it?

I don’t know if it’s generational, but I know that it’s changing.

According to the College Republicans National Committee, in 2012, “young people simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer.” Kristen Soltis Anderson concluded, “There is a brand. …And it’s that we’re not in the 21st century.” That’s pretty stark. But the thing that polls best among young people is talking about innovation and technology. This isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.

Those congressional offices never knew what hit them with SOPA/PIPA. For some people that was a seminal experience, the first time they had ever engaged in the political process and were able to make a change. And now with unlocking we have the first time an online campaign was able to actually introduce legislation. There is a whole generation of people who see these policies as really stifling innovation.

What’s next for copyright reformers?

There is a lot of work to be done in copyright reform still. How long should copyright terms be? The founders set it at 14 years and today it can be over 120. That’s kind of ridiculous in a world where every text, every tweet, every Facebook post is copyrighted longer than anyone who writes them will ever live.

The phone unlocking bill is great. But other issues are very closely related and if Congress doesn’t act soon, we’re going to see the ‘Internet of things’ collapse. A great example is that the next Keurig coffee machine is expected to have a digital chip technology built in such that you can’t use any other coffee pod. It would be a felony to use any other coffee pod with it! The technology would be used to stifle competition in the coffee market. This is just the tip of the iceberg because the benefits for existing businesses are overwhelming.

Any final thoughts?

There has been a sea of change in policymaking on copyright on the right since 2012, it’s almost impossible to find any conservatives, other than lobbyists for industry, opposed to substantial reform. The conservative position is we need to restore our founding principles on copyright.


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The Ethics of Disability Metaphors

From the teenage romance between an amputee and an oxygen-tank user in the box-office success The Fault in Our Stars to the conjoined sisters at the circus in the Kennedy Center’s Side Show, representations of disability and difference are prominent as of late. But as Christopher Shinn noted yesterday at The Atlantic, the recent plethora of disabled characters also has another thing in common: they are played by able-bodied actors. Once again, Shinn said, “Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”

Disability is often used as a metaphor for exclusion and subsequent triumph, themes easier to swallow when an actor twitches sensitively across the stage for two hours only to walk back calmly for the curtain call. So it goes exactly in the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at London’s National Theatre, currently showing in cinemas worldwide before it heads to Broadway in the fall.

Based on a popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” is a family drama packaged as a mystery. It is seen from the perspective of a teenager named Christopher with an autistic spectrum disorder that some reviewers have compared to Asperger’s syndrome. The production uses technical elements, from cool blue lighting to projected numerical graphics to dizzying synthesized sound effects, in order to communicate the experience of sensory overload that accompanies neurological conditions like Christopher’s.

Because this manner of presentation merely informs the audience’s experience of a rather simple plot—the titular incident is a quickly resolved mystery, and most of the second act is a train ride—the play, like the book, seems to run counter to the frequent use of disability as plot obstacle and metaphor for triumph. In fact, Christopher remarks that a metaphor “is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. … I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.”

But in the program note for the stage adaptation of “Curious Incident,” Haddon backtracked. Jane Shilling wrote in her review for The Telegraph, “His 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher, exhibits a constellation of quirks that are recognisably on the autistic spectrum, but his behavioural problems are also a metaphor for the solitariness of the human condition. ‘Curious is not really about Christopher,’ Haddon concludes. ‘It’s about us.’”

In navigating the ethical implications of work like Haddon’s, blogger Mary Maxfield suggested that the problem is not using disability as a metaphor, but using disability as a metaphor for the wrong thing. Christopher, a beloved son integrated into his family and school structures, does not fit Shilling’s metaphor for solitariness. Likewise, Haddon’s editorial “us,” unambiguously separated from people with physical and neurological differences, would have the value of certain lived experiences dependent on their contribution to a grander “human experience.”

As Shinn asserts, the inclusion of disabled actors and artists can bring lived experience rather than distant research to the table and facilitate the kind of responsible art Maxfield imagines. But a willingness to tell stories that are about disabled people for their own sake, rather than about disability per se, would be an even more welcome change.


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Autonomy and Automation in Old Age

The world’s fast-growing elderly population faces more age-related disease, higher health costs, and fewer children to care for them than ever, while the resulting caregiver shortage puts them at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Some medical professionals, like geriatrics professor Louise Aronson, are proposing robots as a solution to both assist overwhelmed human caregivers and replace those guilty of mistreatment, as “most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.”

Aronson’s robotic geriatrics are no fantasy but an existing solution in places like Japan, which has the world’s grayest population and the economic resources available for $100K, yard-tall robots to be feasible. Yet Japan’s relationship with robots shows that making robot caregivers cheaper might not make them any more successful. Japan’s elderly have rejected the robots, asking instead for humans. The only robots with modest success among Japanese elderly have imitated pets, providing limited social engagement rather than medical care and companionship—tasks still preferably assigned to human caregivers.

As Japan shows, the robot caregiver solution does not fail on economic or technological grounds, where boundaries are largely surmountable with time. Rather, turning an intimate job like geriatrics into an automated service sector is a misunderstanding of the profession at hand, which requires both emotional and ethical investment in patients.

Caitrin Nicol Keiper, countering David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots, explained that such encouragement of human-robot intimacy stems from a misunderstanding of the human as mere biochemical machine. The caregiver shortage does not merely stem from a lack of medical aides to perform mechanical tasks, but also an absence of loving companions who ensure the experience of disability and old age is not a solitary one. These robots, after all, are often explicitly designed to counter the negative health effects of loneliness.

But that loneliness has been cemented in a medical and legal culture that is guided above all else by the principle of individual bodily autonomy. Advance directives and living wills allow patients to lay out their medical decisions ahead of time, discouraging the real-time participation of family members or other caregivers in the medical lives of the elderly. As Leon Kass, then chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, reflected in a 2005 report on geriatrics, “Living wills make autonomy and self-determination the primary values at a time of life when one is no longer autonomous or self-determining, and when what one needs is loyal and loving care.”

This cultural reluctance to participate communally in the care of the elderly often expresses itself as avoiding the “burdening” of loved ones. But as Gilbert Meilaender asked in 1991, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” He continued, “I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.”

As Meilaender and Kass suggest, the central problem is not medical incompetence, or even moral indifference, but a break in generational relationships. Neither the elderly nor their medical professionals want them to be dependent on robots rather than people, but, especially among the childless or otherwise socially disconnected, the aged may have little choice. As such, the inhumanity of Aronson’s geriatrics may not be a particularly medical problem, but a social problem. As long as we culturally insist on autonomy, we will technologically insist on automation.


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Congressional Quirkiness on Display @CongressEdits

Twitter has revolutionized the way constituents interact with their representatives in Congress. Will Wikipedia be the next interactive legislative platform?

If developer and Library of Congress employee Ed Summers’ ideas take off, maybe so. This week, Summers created a bot called @congressedits that tweets out anonymous Wikipedia edits from congressional IP addresses. The account has mainly uncovered the innocuous and the banal, from noting the availability of Choco Tacos in the Rayburn building to correcting grammar in the article for Step Up 3D. However, the account also enables the public to see when staffers vandalize or rewrite politicians’ biographical information, whether updating word choice (Justin Amash is an “attorney,” not a “corporate lawyer”) or casually defaming likely opposition (activist Kesha Rogers is a “Trotskyist”).


Rogue political Wikipedia edits have been controversial before. In 2006, staffers for politicians from Rep. Marty Meehan to Sen. Joe Biden were publicly called out for removing criticism from their bosses’ pages. Wikipedia’s usual crowd of vigilant editors reversed the few problematic edits they found after investigating other congressional activity on the site, but left most edits intact as intended “in good faith.”

But Summers’ project is not a series of overt agendas connected to individual staffers. Its real-time, eerily specific feed of edits streams activity from the entire congressional workforce in what Megan Garber has called a project of “ambient accountability.” Like the earlier controversies, Wikipedia can yet again serve as a proxy for political fights happening elsewhere, but it can also serve as a window into everyday life on the Hill at its most bizarre and inconsequential.

There is a significant online audience for Capitol Hill quirkiness. Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson more or less makes a living off it, while members of Congress have social media interns delving into the ever more surreal with legislative doge memes. The @congressedits project could appeal to both easily amused political junkies and to accountability advocates who see it as an opportunity to expand access to the people that they say should be the government’s most visible and engaged group. Read More…

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Why World Cup Culture Wars Vindicate American Soccer

As more Americans than ever tuned in to watch the World Cup over the past few weeks, the American media’s quadrennial habit of analyzing soccer’s place in the country raged on. Cranky right-wingers, embodied by Ann Coulter’s now-infamous ramble, put forth common criticisms of soccer: it has an insufficient gender gap, allows scoreless ties, prohibits using hands, is foreign and liberal, prioritizes team effort over individual prowess, and constitutes all-around “moral decay.” In the face of such resistance, soccer fans like Daniel Drezner proposed simply changing the rules of the game to assuage his fellow Americans’ sense of fairness, rather than asking Americans to adapt to the game’s delightful capriciousness like the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Peter Beinart and other commentators on the left celebrated the “soccer coalition” of youth, immigrants, and liberals—the same one that elected President Obama, he recalled—proving that Americanness is not contingent upon the white working-class culture idealized by Coulter. In short, Americans loudly participated in a soccer nation’s rite of passage by reading domestic politics into the sport every chance they could get.

Though the debate largely focused on whether soccer could possibly have a place in accepted American identity, this process of political theorizing and contention mirrors the way soccer has been absorbed into other cultures throughout the sport’s history. Americans who chafe at the sport’s European origins join the long tradition of our southern neighbors who idealized the “creolization” of soccer while forming national identity after the Latin American revolutions of the 19th century. In Argentina, soccer was the manifestation of the “melting pot” where Italian and Spanish immigrants took over British cultural imports, a process crafted in the pages of the magazine El Gráfico. In Brazil, soccer was a place to reconcile racial tensions by highlighting diversity as a source of American ingenuity and creativity, superior to formulaic and homogenous European play. The contemporary American media’s ongoing narratives of soccer are similar not just in their obsessive nature, but in the diverse subcultures they are trying to weld together.

Soccer has always come with class connotations that plague burgeoning sports cultures. The prevailing image of soccer, both in the U.S. now and in Latin America a century ago, is of white urban and suburban elites who use the sport to moralize. Soccer was formalized in British public schools in the 19th century in order to promote Victorian morality and “muscular Christianity”—as well as to simply keep boys busy—but it largely came to the Americas as the pastime of the “gentleman-athletes” among British immigrants to South America. The “amateur era” of early 20th century soccer parallels the American “soccer mom” values that encourage teamwork and cooperation in children before moving on to more individualist sports as adults, and it is just as widespread and pejoratively viewed as its predecessor. As American pundits critique this intrusion of foreign collectivist values, they are echoing, among others, 1920s and 1930s Argentines calling for “our own style” (“la nuestra”) to counter and replace British beliefs. Read More…

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Republicans Wreck the Vote

This week, seven college students and voting-rights advocates are challenging a North Carolina voting regulation law, alleging age-based discrimination. They argue that the law, which does not permit state university IDs or out-of-state driver’s licenses as acceptable voter ID and ends a DMV pre-registration program for teenagers, violates the 26th Amendment that enfranchised citizens 18 and over. Separately, efforts to shut down voting sites at universities are adding to complaints that the Republican-dominated state and local governments are deliberately blocking the youth vote, which turned out overwhelmingly for President Obama twice in North Carolina and nationwide.

The irony is, Republicans may be moving to depress the youth vote just when it could be starting to turn in their favor. While the millennials who comprise young voters now look to be strongly Democratic in the short term, David Leonhardt argues that today’s teenagers may grow up conservative:

In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.

To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

As Leonhardt argues, college students and young voters in general are not inherently liberal groups. In the 1980s, Republicans dominated the youth vote: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won first-time voters, under-29 voters, and voters with some college education by large margins. Those then-young voters remain a consistently Republican constituency, lining up with Leonhardt’s argument that politics are more generational than anything. Young voters are entering the electorate while making their political allegiances in reaction to ongoing policies, forming beliefs that they will carry throughout their lives.

Legislating away unfriendly voters is rarely a productive path to long-term future success for a party seeking democratic legitimacy, and voting blocs generally aren’t courted by efforts to impede their franchise or deny their voting rights. With their gaze fixed firmly backward at their past two presidential setbacks, North Carolina Republicans and their counterparts nationwide are at risk of scoring a series of own goals.

This generation in particular could be a political opportunity ripe for Republicans’ taking. The teenagers who voted in the last election, and those entering the electorate now, are voting increasingly Republican in reaction to the current administration’s failures. A Democratic president that leans interventionist and is misleadingly ineffective on student debt makes for even more fertile ground for conservative alternatives. Rather than trying to inhibit the youth vote, Republicans should craft policy solutions that could serve to swing young voters to their side and take advantage of their momentum.

Instead, the GOP seems to be one step behind the data, once more.


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Gangs Bust the False Dichotomies of the Child Migration Crisis

The ongoing Central American child migrant crisis gained the national spotlight last week when the president asked Congress for emergency funds to stem the influx. Many of the children, like other immigrants, are looking for work and education, or are trying to reunite with family. But as Ross Douthat has pointed out, the numbers are spiking in large part because the children are following smuggler-spread rumors of amnesty, possibly inspired by the mixed signals of the DREAM Act. Since smugglers make more profit trafficking children than more logistically challenging adults, the administration’s recent efforts to counter the misinformation have not gone far.

The language surrounding the crisis on the U.S. side of the border can be almost as confused, however. As the crisis made headlines, one false dichotomy dominated the rest: “Please don’t call this an immigration reform issue. This is a humanitarian crisis,” Rep. Kay Granger of Texas recently said. Refugee advocate Jennifer Podkul was quick to echo the juxtaposition. “This is not a migration issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and a foreign policy issue.”

The rush to call this anything but an immigration story is usually intended to highlight the root causes of poverty and violence in Central America. Rhetorically, it creates urgency and helps encourage a distinction between short-term solutions for children suffering at the border and long-term solutions to reform the system.

In reality, though, those are not competing frameworks. The child migration situation is both a humanitarian crisis and a migration issue, and it cannot be resolved without taking both aspects into consideration. A prime example of the importance of both priorities can be found in the motivating factor in this child migration influx that most defies easy categorization: the proliferation of gang violence in Central America.

Central American child migrants widely cite gang violence as a motivation for leaving their countries, and the gangs they flee are fundamentally tied up in the migration issue. The most prominent Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (“MS-13”) and 18th Street Gang (“Calle 18”), began among Latino youth in Los Angeles in the 1960s and the 1980s respectively, but both expanded from the United States to Central America after mass deportations following the 1996 Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This migration policy decision fomented cross-border crime networks that now have an estimated 70,000-100,000 members in several countries.

The gang violence plaguing these children does not just illustrate the long-term consequences of immigration policy, but also the reason for considering this in international refugee terms. As many as 48 percent of Central American child migrants are fleeing violence in their communities, including the violence gangs perpetrate in their recruitment of adolescents. Central American minors specifically seeking international protection as refugees from persecution in the form of gang violence have won asylum in the U.S. in the past. The gangs’ sheer scope, as transnational criminal organizations and sometimes paramilitaries, has led some advocates to describe the child migrants as akin to defecting child soldiers. Read More…

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When Baltimore Bore the “Bombs Bursting in Air”

Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland.
Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland.

Today, the United States of America commemorates 238 years of independence from the British—but an approaching bicentennial serves as a reminder that the struggle to establish sovereignty was only beginning when the Declaration of Independence was written. During the summer of 1814, the United States was in the full throes of what historians have long considered a “second war of independence.” The turning point of that war would come at the Battle of Baltimore, known to most Americans today as the inspiration for the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The invading British had just burned the White House and plundered the port of Alexandria. On August 27, the Baltimore Patriot printed a letter from President James Madison, who had recently fled from the burning capital:

“On an occasion which appeals so forcibly to the proud feelings and patriotic devotion of the American people, none will forget what they owe to themselves; what they owe to their country and the high destinies which await it; what to the glory acquired by their fathers, in establishing the independence which is now to be maintained by their sons, with the augmented strength and resources with which time and Heaven have blessed them.”

The letter was addressed to the whole nation, but its exhortation to preserve the young nation’s independence was keenly felt in the notoriously anti-British city of Baltimore. The city was then known for its privateers, who raided British ships’ merchandise, as well as for a series of anti-British riots during which mobs burned the offices of anti-war newspapers. Baltimore was also of great strategic importance as a busy port that connected several East Coast cities by land and sea. The city’s residents were perhaps uniquely prepared for such an invasion due to their strong local tradition of civic self-defense. After the riots, local elites had recognized the authorities’ failure to keep the crowds under control and independently organized patrols of armed citizens to assist in expanding the city’s defensive resources.

But the events of the summer of 1814 pushed the city to formalize their efforts more strongly. After news of the fall of Washington, Baltimoreans set up a Committee of Vigilance and Safety comprised of the existing Maryland militia as well as civilians who served as volunteers on a rotating night patrol. Besides the night watch, the Committee was also responsible for raising funds for the local war effort, which generally took the form of donating at each prominent community center (usually a local tavern). A prescient Washingtonian wrote to Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser: “If the British visit Baltimore I have no doubt you will receive them in American style—we are disgraced.”

The local militia was particularly focused on unity in the face of the national military’s failure. The biggest blow to military success was the strategic blunder made by the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, who was thoroughly convinced that the British would not attack Washington. He saw the city as strategically insignificant, so he failed to prepare for its defense, which ended up drawing military resources to the region in a scrambled last-minute effort. Armstrong resigned after the defeat at Washington, but the local militia were already prepared to count on themselves for the most part. When his resignation letter made it to Baltimore, along with a full account of the disastrous battle, publishers refrained from comment and blame games. Invoking patriotism, the editor of the Baltimore Patriot proclaimed: “An enquiry must be made–when the nation is saved.” This restrained attitude continued through the city’s preparations for war, as the staff printed assurances of the city’s proper defense without giving particulars for fear of over-informing the enemy. Read More…

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The Chinese Embassy’s Embarrassing New Address

Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo has a habit of making headlines from prison. The political reformer began his fourth prison term, this time an eleven-year sentence for “subversion,” in 2009, only to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and now a surprising congressional move has pulled him into the most local of politics. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to next year’s budget that would rename the address of the Chinese embassy in northwest D.C. to “1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza” in his honor.

David Keyes of the nonprofit Advancing Human Rights explained the position of the move’s bipartisan advocates when the proposal was initially made. As he tells it, the idea is to remind other countries that their domestic policy decisions have an international cost: ”Every time the representatives of tyranny walk outside of their offices, they should be confronted with the faces and names of those whose freedom they deny. Dissidents languishing in prison must know that they are not forgotten.”

Washington street names have been political arenas before. Similar motivations led Congress to rename the address of the Soviet embassy “1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza” after a Soviet dissident and human rights activist in 1984.

Criticism from China on this latest move was to be expected: a spokeswoman from their Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the proposal a “complete farce,” while online commenters proposed renaming the address of the U.S. embassy in Beijing after Edward Snowden. But Americans are faulting the move as well. Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution, for instance, complained that the renaming’s “symbolic shaming” would not accomplish much. “Of course, what the regime did to Liu Xiaobo violated every reasonable moral standard, and this action will make some in the West feel good. But it will not speed his release by even one day.”

Yet no one questions that the move is anything other than symbolic. The proposal’s sponsor, outgoing Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, defended the move in moral language: “Renaming the street would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe.” The question is not whether the U.S. can force China to release Liu Xiaobo by renaming a street. Secretary of State John Kerry has already made the U.S. position on Liu’s case perfectly clear in the past. Rather, Wolf’s message-sending may be aimed in another direction entirely.

Human rights advocacy has taken a back seat as an American foreign policy priority in dealing with China. Taken in that context, the street sign proposal may be sending a message to Americans, rather than the Chinese. Naming the street of the Chinese embassy after a jailed dissident may be a small effort to suggest to Americans that human rights should be a bigger national priority. It is that agenda that should be debated, not the overdramatized foreign policy implications of a street sign.


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Homelessness, Housing, and the Failures of the Regulatory Impulse

When it comes to homelessness, many communities’ first instinct is to regulate the problem away. Making certain aspects of life on the street illegal, the approach goes, will force the homeless into city programs—or into other cities. This regulatory approach, sometimes referred to as the municipal criminalization of homelessness, includes the seizures of homeless Americans’ private property through police sweeps, laws against panhandling, and restrictions (or even bans) on sharing food with the homeless in public. These measures end up wasting money through the overincarceration of the homeless for nonviolent crimes: according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, it costs up to three times as much to keep someone in jail for one night as it does to keep someone in a shelter.

But the approach, which only deals with the visibility of homelessness and not its root causes, is also fundamentally flawed in that it tends to manifest as merely a short-term bandage for a much more complex issue. The misguided strategy is exemplified by Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “war on homelessness,” which has quickly devolved into a “war on the homeless” by seizing the property of the homeless, banning tents in public spaces, and drafting bills to authorize the police to harass anyone sleeping in public spaces. Though it is intended to improve the local economy by boosting tourism—and a booming local economy would be beneficial to the homeless population in the long run, to be sure—this regulatory approach provides no alternatives other than exodus for the homeless population. As Leah Libresco put it, “Hawaii, more than other states, shouldn’t just try to hide their homeless, since, as an island state, they can’t pull the trick other cities have used and hand out one-way bus tickets to shunt their homeless to another city.”

That same regulating impulse on the local level is also driving up housing costs in cities across the country, likely contributing to homelessness. Scott Beyer recently illustrated how housing policy intersects with homelessness in D.C., where the public health crisis at the decrepit General Hospital shelter is contrasted with housing prices that are rising along with regulations slowing development. “Collectively, writes Cato Institute economist Randal O’Toole, these ‘planning penalties’ add $135,000 to the costs per unit in D.C. Such expenses are paid upfront by businesses, but ultimately get passed onto consumers, making the idea of owning — or even renting — housing impossible for many residents,” Beyer says. He notes that the situation is not specific to D.C. but has spread to politically similar cities like New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

Even affordable housing requirements, meant as a regulated solution to those inflated housing costs, are handled in the same wasteful way. Josh Barro recently detailed the issue of inclusionary zoning, an attempt to increase affordable housing in New York City by offering Manhattan developers the ability to build more luxury apartments if some are allocated to lower rent levels. But while perhaps politically necessary, the strategy underperforms. According to Barro, “Inclusionary zoning generates fewer affordable housing units than a cash equivalent because luxury apartments make for an expensive form of affordable housing.” Read More…

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