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The Lighthouse is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
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Volume 18, Issue 20: May 17, 2016

  1. The Road to Better Highways
  2. Why Airport Security Is a Bad Joke
  3. California’s New Tobacco Ban: A Moral Abomination
  4. U.S. Should Stop Coddling Saudi Arabia
  5. New Blog Posts
  6. Selected News Alerts



1) The Road to Better Highways

May 16 kicks off Infrastructure Week—an occasion to reflect on the importance of America’s roads, bridges, airports, pipes, transmission lines, power grids, and the like. It may never have occurred to you that the United States needs an Infrastructure Day, given that you already knew you use one or more of these things every day. But the dozens of construction firms, trade associations, government organizations, and non-profits who co-sponsor Infrastructure Week have made reminding you of the obvious a high priority. Regardless of the motives behind this publicity event, it gives us an opportunity to share news of a trend that has likely worsened your commute and added wear and tear to your motor vehicle: As drivers have shifted to more energy-efficient cars, fuel tax revenues have failed to keep pace with the need for constructing and maintaining highways.

Partly in response to the shortfall, President Obama in December signed legislation to provide “$95 million for states to research and test new ways to fund roads,” as Independent Institute Research Fellow Gabriel Roth writes in a recent op-ed for The Hill. The result, Roth adds, could steer us toward genuine improvements in surface transportation, such as the creation of efficient express toll lanes, like stretches of SR-91 and I-15 in Southern California.

Researching and testing new funding models could also take us in technologically interesting directions—such as using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to bill drivers according to the distance and time of day traveled. “To protect privacy, information about specific trips should not be transmitted,” Roth writes. The adoption of this technology or other innovations offers the possibility of making road systems self-financing and very efficient. “There would still be problems—such as the allocation of costs between different types of vehicles—but toll-road managements deal with such problems daily all over the world,” Roth writes.

New Ways to Pay for Roads, by Gabriel Roth (The Hill 4/29/16)

Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads, edited by Gabriel Roth

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2) Why Airport Security Is a Bad Joke

Roads aren’t the only transportation infrastructure that suffers from poorly designed public policies. Government inefficiency and ineptitude also hamper rail and air transport. Regarding railroads, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Lawrence J. McQuillan and Policy Researcher Hayeon Carol Park have explained recently why California’s rail commuters don’t need the boondoggle that the state’s misnamed “bullet train” has become. As for air travel, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Benjamin W. Powell argues that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), the government agency that conducts safety screenings of luggage and passengers at the nation’s airports, should be scrapped in favor of private security.

TSA checkpoints are a tight bottleneck that caused 6,800 passengers to miss their flights on one airline only, in one week alone (American Airlines in March). The agency has poor incentives to expedite travel while promoting genuine safety. Moreover, its personnel aren’t necessarily adept at safety: at some airports TSA staff are notorious for failing to prevent so-called “red teams”—government personnel tasked with trying to breach security in order to improve it—from successfully sneaking fake weapons and bombs past security workers. TSA screeners have even gotten fired for theft.

“The problem is the TSA is a government bureaucracy that has little incentive to balance safety considerations against customer satisfaction,” Powell writes in the New York Post. Transferring the task of security from government bureaucrats to airlines and (preferably private) airports would create strong incentives to achieve a good balance—provided, of course, that the airlines and airports would face the full consequences for any lapses. “Most of the benefits of airline safety accrue directly to airlines and their passengers,” Powell continues. “So, if the airlines are ceded responsibility for security screening, they also should be held strictly liable for any harm caused by security breaches.” This would help ensure that the skies are both safe and friendly.

The Only Solution to TSA’s Problems: Get Rid of It, by Benjamin W. Powell (New York Post, 5/1/16)

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority Wins Dishonor of the California Golden Fleece Award, by Lawrence J. McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park (The Beacon, 4/13/16)

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3) California’s New Tobacco Ban: A Moral Abomination

Smokers in California from 18 to 20 years old have only three and a half weeks until the state’s new tobacco restrictions kick in. Come June 9—two days after the California primary election—tobacco consumption for the under 21 crowd will be verboten. Young adults will still be able to make many life-or-death decisions, but they won’t be able to light up legally unless they are in the military. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all will abstain from indulging in tobacco: Many will have access to smokes and chew via the underground market that is sure to emerge. For evidence, observe how black markets arose in New York in response to the Empire State’s tax on cigarettes.

“New York’s experience is instructive,” write Independent Institute Senior Fellow William F. Shughart II and Strata Policy Analyst Josh T. Smith. “Largely because of the titanic tax that it places on cigarettes, almost 60 percent of the cigarettes sold in New York are smuggled into the state, according to the Tax Foundation.”

While experience with other prohibitions (and exorbitant tax hikes) offers strong reasons to oppose California’s new tobacco law, the moral case against it is even stronger. “It is absurd to claim that 18-year-olds are too young to buy a pack of cigarettes, but are mature enough to consent to sex, marry, or vote,” Shughart and Smith write. “It is a double standard that threatens the protection of all personal choices, even the ones still considered sacrosanct.... Lawmakers should let adults be adults and allow them to make their own decisions because they are worthy of our respect as equal, autonomous human beings.”

Old Enough to Choose a President, but Not to Buy Cigarettes?, by William F. Shughart II and Josh Smith (The Beacon, 5/12/16)

Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination, editing by William F. Shughart II

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4) U.S. Should Stop Coddling Saudi Arabia

President Obama’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, likely meant to reassure a government concerned about the administration’s nuclear deal with Iraq, underscores the need for the United States to stop embracing the rulers of the oil-rich kingdom—diplomatically, militarily, and literally. That’s the theme of Independent Institute Senior Fellow Ivan Eland’s latest op-ed on U.S. policy in the Middle East. The U.S.-Saudi relationship, Eland argues, has long been captive to myths about oil markets and plagued by its failure to respond to Riyadh’s sponsorship of radical Islam. Unless those mistakes are corrected, America’s genuine interests will continue to suffer.

“The United States no longer needs to coddle the despotic monarchy and should end this alliance of convenience,” Eland writes in the Huffington Post. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is deplorable, “the kingdom,” he writes, “has been the biggest exporter of Islamic radicalism on the planet,” and the U.S. demand for oil can easily weather a rift between Washington and Riyadh.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Eland continues, “has proven to be a bad ally, and the U.S.-Saudi alliance—originally based on false premises and now out of date with the U.S. fracking boom—should be ended. There is no need to further indulge a medieval despotic abuser of human rights and exporter of worldwide radical Islamism with political backing, destabilizing arms sales, and military assistance for its reckless war [in Yemen].”

The United States Should Quit Coddling a Badly Behaving Saudi Arabia, by Ivan Eland (Huffington Post, 4/25/16)

No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, by Ivan Eland

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5) New Blog Posts

From The Beacon:

From MyGovCost News & Blog:

Count the ARC for Looming OPEB Obligations
K. Lloyd Billingsley (5/13/16)

The National Debt Burden per Household
Craig Eyermann (5/13/16)

GovSecrecy.Con
K. Lloyd Billingsley (5/12/16)

You can find the Independent Institute's Spanish-language website here and blog here.

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6) Selected News Alerts

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