Title II Scholarship for Kids

Over at the Fordham Institute’s Wonk-A-Thon, I propose a twist on Sen. Lamar Alexander’s Title I portability plan — just scrap Title II’s intended purpose (which is an utter failure according to the Department of Education’s own researchers) and make the money go towards no-strings-attached scholarships in a block grant to states.

Seems like a simple solution that politically fits with the current dividing lines and avoids the pitfalls of a new program, the complications of a tax credit, and meets Trump’s $20 billion mark.

Read it here: https://edexcellence.net/articles/title-ii-scholarships-for-kids


FJM-ing the Bipartisan Budget Deal

Late last night, in a coup de grace for The Establishment, Speaker Boehner released his masterpiece – a budget deal negotiated with President Obama. The Majority Whip, Steve Scalise, has been tasked with pitching the bill to the Republican caucus, so let’s go through his email to Republican staffers, FJM-style, and explain how bad this bill is. Remember, what you are reading is a Republican-to-Republicans email, meant to garner more Republican votes:

From: Matt Bravo [Deputy Floor Director]


H.R. 1314, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 brings certainty to our appropriations process, strengthens our national security, and protects our troops.  The bill authorizes new spending levels in FY 2016 and FY 2017, offsets budget cap adjustment with mandatory spending cuts, reforms SSDI, repeals ObamaCare auto enrollment mandate, and increases the debt ceiling through March 2017. [emphasis in original]

You know it’s bad when the Republicans must *immediately* deploy their “it helps our troops!” talking points. Because if you vote against something that is ostensibly “for the troops” you are, ipso facto, “anti-the troops.” That the best bolded talking point is about funding the military (which is what “protects our troops” means) is an enormous failure for Republicans. Just a few days ago, while Hillary Clinton was defending her lies about a video in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, President Obama vetoed a bipartisan bill authorizing military spending for next year. He claimed it was unfair to spend more on our military while not increasing spending for domestic programs proportionately. He seems to have won that debate, as we will see below.

  • New spending levels for FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Let’s not let this simple line slip away too quickly. The minutiae of the exact spending number is not the offense here, though it is dispiriting. The problem is this – a Republican wave in 2010 flipped the House and strengthened the Republican caucus in the Senate; then, that Congressional group drove a hard bargain over the debt limit, extracting real cuts from Obama (in the form of the Supercommittee recommendations or an automatic sequester); then, those cuts were implemented for 2 years and conservatives rejoiced; but now, between the Ryan-Murray deal and this Bipartisan Budget, Congressional Republicans will have been responsible for pushing off four years of real spending cuts. The 2010 wave had one real legislative accomplishment to hang its hat on… and Boehner is about to undermine it for the second fourth time.

  • FY 2016: $548 billion (security) and $518.4 billion (non-security) an increase of $25 billion each in category above current law.
    • OCO: $58.8 billion (Defense) and $14.9 billion (non-defense)

How do you spend money in an “overseas contingency operations” account on “non-defense”? Sounds like Obama rolled Boehner to get off-budget increases in discretionary non-defense spending to me…

  • FY 2017: $551 billion (security) and $518.5 billion (non-security) an increase of $15 billion each in category above current law.
    • OCO: $58.8 billion (Defense) and $14.9 billion (non-defense)
  • Fully offsets the $80 billion increase above current law with mandatory spending cuts and additional savings

If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you… The entire premise of this deal is “these cuts aren’t the *right* cuts, so we’re going to push them off, but don’t worry, we’re making *better* cuts now.” Except – that’s what Ryan-Murray was! So if they couldn’t “fix” the cuts to be better 2 years ago, why should we trust them now?

  • No tax increases.

Grover Norquist’s success must be acknowledged, but this is really baseline stuff that Republican Congresses don’t raise taxes. However, I wonder if there aren’t some “fees” like the TSA tax Ryan-Murray gave us last time (spoiler: stay tuned!).

  • Reforms SSDI to close loopholes, increases work incentives, stops fraud, prevents a 20% cut to benefits.

Social Security Disability Insurance is a smaller program intended to help those who had worked or chronically cannot work. It has good intentions… which is why it has become a disaster through abuse, fraud, and, primarily, overuse. The most common reasons for applying – mental condition or back pain – are undetectable except through patient testimony. The program is set to run out of fake IOUs in 2017, at which point it would pay out only what it takes in (it derives its resources from a portion of your payroll tax – keep that in mind for later), which would equate to a 20% cut from the unsustainable checks it sends today.

Anytime Republicans use these half-measures to address chronically failing programs I must point out – if the problems were simply waste, fraud, abuse, and loopholes, wouldn’t we have fixed them by now!? The real problem is the nature of the program – paying people for not working and encouraging them to lie about being unhealthy.

  • Generates $168 billion in long-term savings to strengthen the solvency of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.

The SSDI time-bomb (which we’ve known about forever, and which there have been substantive proposals on how to fix, most notably from former Senator Tom Coburn) is on its way to becoming the next “doc fix” – and just a few months after we put that charade to rest! More on that below.

  • Protects seniors from a 50% increase in Medicare Part B premiums and includes entitlement reforms to save taxpayers over $30 billion.

As just noted above, we did a doc fix – now there’s a patient fix too? Seems like the entire system is in need of fixing… instead we just slap on a new coat of paint and continue on like all’s well until the next election.

  • Repeals the ObamaCare auto-enrollment mandate.

Here’s a free lesson, if Obama is willing to sign it into law, you are not repealing significant portions of his signature law. When you repeal the paperwork burden (1099 repeal), or the CLASS Act, or defund CO-OPs, you’re not striking at the heart of the beast – you’re helping Obama trim the fat off his prime accomplishment in office.

  • Prevents default and suspends the limit on public debt through March 2017.

Oh, we’ve just wholesale bought into the “going past the debt ceiling = default” talking point? Noted.

Additional details Include:

  • $30 billion in savings from mandatory health programs, including extension of Medicare sequester.
  • Improved collection of delinquent debts owed to U.S. government.

Is it a tax increase when you put more resources into collecting taxes? Also, you’ve gotta love a country that pays for increased spending by resolving to enforce the tax laws already on the books.

  • Sale of excess capacity in Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The SPR is an outdated Cold War relic that should be done away with wholesale. Everyone knows it, because Congress has taken to using it as a piggy bank in every bill that needs a few extra billion dollars. Just this Congress, the CURES Act in the House and the Senate’s Discount Highway Bill (“pay for 3 years, get 6!”) used funds from sales of oil to cover their costs.

  • Modest increase of $4 for PBGC premiums which strengthen solvency of PBGC.

Not a tax increase!

  • Improved criteria for use of most accurate mortality tables for measuring pension liabilities.

I like how this common sense improvement to an existing program isn’t put into place until Congressmen need it – i.e., when they want to use the “savings” to pay for things they truly want.

  • Extension of pension smoothing provisions to reflect interest rate history.

“Pension smoothing” is a punchline in conservative circles because it so obviously is a gimmick. And the term is too fun to say. Congress should smooth more things to increase current spending, seems like a great idea.

  • Inflationary updates to civil monetary penalties.

Increasing fines and penalties on hedge funds, big banks, and all the corporate baddies. Let’s call it No Justice Department Prosecutor Left Behind.

  • Improved fraud detection and increased penalties  for SSDI.

“So that we can keep paying out unsustainable benefits to current beneficiaries, we are going to *really* crack down on the bad apples in the current system. Which we are sure there are plenty of, or else this wouldn’t score as enough cash. But also, this is a noble and good program we must keep.”

  • Reauthorization and extension of promising work demonstration projects for SSDI recipients.
  • Amends the Federal Crop Insurance Act to require a new Standard Reinsurance Agreement to be renegotiated by the end of 2016 and every five years. Also, adjusts the cap on the overall rate of return to 8.9%.
  • Tighter criteria for use of qualified physicians in making SSDI eligibility determinations.
  • Reallocation of payroll tax revenue to SSDI trust fund to extend ability to pay SSDI benefits through 2022.

Ignore every other SSDI “fix,” “reform,” or “improvement” because here is the real answer – Congress wants to change the formula for payroll taxes to put more money into SSDI. This is the program with so many delinquents, cheats, and fraudulent beneficiaries, we must act now. It’s also the program so near the edge of solvency, it’s facing bankruptcy. So what is our solution? Take this giant pot of money we collect form every working American, and dedicate a few more percent to SSDI. This will be the new “doc fix” if fundamental parts of the program or the American populace do not change.

One big problem – that payroll tax money comes from somewhere. And that somewhere is Social Security. I can picture the Democrat attack ads against Carlos Curbelo, Elise Stefanik, Lee Zeldin, etc., “S/he voted to rob Social Security and threaten its solvency!” When the Social Security bankruptcy date moves into the 2020s (its currently set for 2034) you’ll know who to blame.

  • Extend authority for Spectrum auction from 2022 to 2025.
  • Improved tax compliance by streamlining rules for partnership audits.   Partners would not be subject to joint and several liability for any liability determined at the partnership level.

Spectrum sales are good, if clunky and horribly run. And attacking hedge fund guys to raise money for defense contractors seems like a useless exercise.

I hope this has shed some light on the turd sandwich that is the Bipartisan Budget deal, and I hope you do not accept any other argument from your Congressman than “it was the least worst thing, and I wanted Paul Ryan to have clear sailing for 14 months before the next election.”

Tenure: The Silver Bullet to Stop Campus Title IX Inquisition

Rod Dreher had a great post today discussing “The SJW Crusade Against Laura Kipnis.” Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern University who was accused under Title IX of harming her students. Title IX deals with gender discrimination on college campuses (most memorable for the sports dollars equity it imposes) but Kipnis had just written something in a magazine. It’s an absurd case and she was led through the insanity of the university’s “kangaroo court” (her word) system.

Thankfully, she came out the other end unscathed. But what about the next professor who doesn’t get media attention? It is also notable that Prof. Kipnis is an orthodox liberal, so her opinions on all these topics line up with the prevailing campus culture – she’s just not a full-blown fascist who wants to silence her opponents. What if she were not?

In her telling of the ordeal, “My Title IX Inquisition,” she discusses the role tenure played. Quoting (via Dreher) Kipnis:

Many of the emails I received from people teaching at universities pointed out that I was in a position to take on the subjects I did in the earlier essay only because I have tenure. The idea is that once you’ve fought and clawed your way up the tenure ladder, the prize is academic freedom, the general premise being — particularly at research universities, like the one I’m fortunate enough to be employed at — that there’s social value in fostering free intellectual inquiry. It’s a value fast disappearing in the increasingly corporatized university landscape, where casual labor is the new reality. Adjuncts, instructors, part-timers — now half the profession, according to the American Association of University Professors — simply don’t have the same freedoms, practically speaking.

What’s being lost, along with job security, is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place. With students increasingly regarded as customers and consumer satisfaction paramount, it’s imperative to avoid creating potential classroom friction with unpopular ideas if you’re on a renewable contract and wish to stay employed. Self-censorship naturally prevails. But even those with tenure fear getting caught up in some horrendous disciplinary process with ad hoc rules and outcomes; pretty much everyone now self-censors accordingly.

In his piece, Dreher goes on to explain how the SJWs will continue on their rampage no matter who/where/what. And I agree completely. But there is a way to get university professors on the side of sanity.

Conservatives must push for mandatory tenure minimums at universities.

As Kipnis mentions above, tenure is dying as colleges attempt to hoover up more and more federal dollars via student loans and Pell grants. The switch to part-time professors shifts the power base in colleges to administrators – the overseers of the SJW kangaroo courts. Essentially, our nation’s universities are policed by the most shrill students crying “oppression” and their pliant SJW administrators.

Since we will not run out of students marinated in Progressive worldviews soon, and the administrative class on campus thrives under the current trends, the best chance conservatives have to make an impact on campuses is to ally with the only group up for grabs – professors.

Republicans would gain new allies (or at least reach a ceasefire) with the hordes of adjuncts out there mired in what is seemingly a dead-end job – low pay, no chance for real promotion, and terrible benefits. (Throw in a few tax reforms for contractors and the self-employed, and you could have a real revolution on your hands – but more on that another time) All it would take is a simple, one-line piece of legislation:

“Section 312 (20 U.S.C 1058) is amended in subsection (b)(1) by adding: (G) has a tenured professor population not less than 85% of the total teaching population”

If you follow the link above, you’ll find the requirements for an “eligible institution” in subsection (b) just near the top. Our simple law would require universities receiving Pell grant aid have most of their professors protected by tenure. That way, professors may recognize again the value of free speech. And maybe we can convince them to extend it even to their opponents, as I am sure Prof. Kipnis would agree is a good thing!

Rand Paul: Federalism Hypocrite

Rand Paul is a hypocrite on the issue of federalism.

Yesterday, The Federalist ran my piece on how Republicans can make a principled argument against Obama’s coercive federalism this summer by repealing the national mandatory drinking age of 21 embedded in the highway bill.

I had assumed Rand Paul would be one the candidates for 2016 most likely to support this idea and the larger policy goal of cutting federal strings used to manipulate the states.

But instead, I was dismayed by a report via Byron York about Team Rand’s description of one of his criminal justice reform bills:

Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act: If passed, this would restore the voting rights of every non-violent felon in the country. Non-violent felons would be able to vote in federal elections only and states that do not change their laws to reflect this would not receive federal prison funds. (emphasis added)

Unless your state legislature and governor get together to allow for felons, tried and convicted under state laws, to vote in federal elections, President Paul will take away federal prison dollars your state has come to rely on. That’s disheartening, coming from the guy who told Ben Domenech on Monday, “I believe we should leave more power in the hands of the states and local governments.”

Merits of either policy aside, this is precisely the mechanism by which the Congress coerced states into enacting a national drinking age of 21 years old. In the latter case, it is highway funding held ransom in Washington; in Sen. Paul’s legislation, grant money for your prisons.

This is coercive federalism, and it pollutes the relationship between the states and the federal government. A proper federalism respects the original compact of 1787 wherein the states are sovereign and have granted the federal government limited powers. Coercive federalism stands that notion on its head and assumes the federal prerogatives should triumph over the will of the states.

In our increasingly monarchical government, the states have become vassals relying on their feudal lords for funding. In turn, they accept the accompanying rules about what laws they may produce and what policy areas must lie fallow.

Many in the liberty movement harp on, for instance, the Rubio-Lee tax plan for social engineering through the tax code. I hope they see the same pernicious tactic in Rand’s much-vaunted criminal justice reforms.

Unfortunately, it may be the Senator from Kentucky will continue to trumpet the title of “criminal justice reformer” and garnering the ensuing accolades while using federal coercion to achieve his preferred ends.

Ted Cruz for Senate, Not President

This piece was published originally at The Federalist:

Today’s announcement by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that he will be a candidate for president in 2016 exposes a fundamental weakness in the conservative movement. Congress, and the Senate especially, has been sapped of its institutional strength and is at risk of being left to rot by a conservative movement more interested in wielding power where progressives have placed it than restoring a proper balance, vociferous paeans to the latter notion notwithstanding.

The Senate has been withering since long before Harry Reid’s do-nothing reign, but his eight years of throttling its deliberations may have finally killed it. And politicians are aware of this.

Despite their lengthy six-year terms, only 22 senators currently serving were elected before 2000, and nearly half are new since 2008. This is not inherently good or bad, but it indicates the allure, or lack thereof, in serving in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

The President Has Neutered the Senate

As the recruiters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee can attest, more and more the best candidates pass on the “opportunity” to run for a Senate seat. Why should someone campaign for nearly two years and spend millions of dollars for the privilege of being neutered daily?

If you want to pass legislation in the Senate, you likely must get support from the opposition party to secure 60 votes for ending debate on your bill (additional hurdle for Republicans: you must pass the minority party’s bills, no questions asked). When that process inevitably does not yield the result you or the president want, the executive will just do it anyways by fiat or under a unique interpretation of an arcane law already on the books.

Want to have a say in nominations, as the Constitution requires? Better do it quickly, or else the president will deem you out of session and appoint his people anyways.

Well, you still have a say in treaties and foreign policy. Except when the executive branch writes an agreement with a foreign entity that is designed to circumvent you.

Ted Cruz, Stay in the Senate

The public humiliation of the Senate over the last six years has left it devoid of power and with a leadership unable to restore its Constitutional role.

The current leadership in the Senate Republican caucus is why someone of Cruz’s considerable talent is needed there. By leaving the Senate to establishmentarians (Mitch McConnell), former Democrats (Richard Shelby), octogenarians (Chuck Grassley), and incumbents unable to garner majority support in a primary (Thad Cochran, Lamar Alexander), Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul are abandoning the urgent work they are in prime positions to carry out, that of restoring the Senate to its proper role.

Cruz could likely hold his seat in perpetuity while remaining a strong advocate for limited government. The powers of incumbency along with the dogged work ethic Cruz showed in his first election would make him a formidable candidate even in the worst of cycles. At age 44, Cruz could easily serve 30 years in the Senate before considering retirement. If Cruz focused on being a conservative foil to Senate institutions like Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vermont), class of ‘74, or Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia), the longest-serving senator in history, he could play an important role in the resurgence of liberty and a return to Constitutional government.

But the trust and cooperation of colleagues can only be earned if they know you’ll stick around. It is easy to ignore political players whose sunset is on the horizon or who have made it abundantly clear they will not work with you. Just ask President Obama, who spends every day agitating for attention and accolades from his liberal base.

In Cruz’s case, as in Rubio’s and Paul’s, he has had his eyes on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since he arrived in Washington. In his legislative pursuits, Cruz has shown himself averse to the tough work of changing the Senate and its Republican caucus from the inside out. Instead he has sought to force obedience by bringing outside pressure to bear on his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill. His hashtag campaigns (#MakeDClisten) and insistence on an all-or-nothing assault on Obamacare in 2013 as a last-ditch effort to stop it showcase his emphasis on grassroots rabble-rousing over the old-fashioned politicking inherent to a legislative body.

Instead of using his talents to further the conservative cause by restoring a functional Senate that works as a voice of the states instead of special interests for the party in the majority, he has chosen to seek the office currently most antithetical to limited government and constitutional order. His choice is a missed opportunity for conservatives, and we should hope he and his fellow presidential aspirants in the Senate recognize the folly in abandoning that body to its current fate.

Everything Wrong With Our “National Food Policy” in One Article

A piece of reporting on Washington Post’s Wonkblog Monday highlights and exacerbates many of the problems with the way the United States government treats commerce in meat products (and food generally). Let us treat this in the FJM-style and dissect it as we read (my comments in italics):

Major supermarket chains changed how they label meat, surprising customers and USDA

By Roberto A. Ferdman

Retired doctor Louis Offen and his wife have been shopping at the same Giant supermarket in Bethesda, Md., for nearly 40 years. Offen is in charge of buying the steak, which normally means combing the meat section for New York strip sirloins with the label “USDA grade choice,” the mid-level grade for meat. The cut is ubiquitous.

But one day last month, Offen was stumped. He couldn’t find any packages with a “choice” label. He couldn’t find lower-quality beef, called “select,” either. All he found was an unfamiliar blue crest that read “USDA graded” on every package of beef. “Isn’t all beef sold in stores USDA graded, making that label useless?” he asked.

The good doctor gets right to the heart of the matter, even though he doesn’t realize it. The truth is – all beef is inspected, so thus it is all safe (or at least as safe as you can trust USDA to guarantee that, more on that as we go). Our compelling narrative of a befuddled doctor could end here. Perhaps he could take his argument for more descriptive labels to the store. But, no, the federal government must do all and be all, so the retiree who worked in a government cartel industry his whole life leads us to a government goose chase for more regulation, and Wonkblog is ON IT!

In recent weeks, Giant stores nationwide changed their labeling procedures, making it difficult for customers to know the quality of meat. Rather than providing different options, the company labeled meat simply as “USDA graded” — a description that applies to all but a tiny amount of meat approved for sale in the United States.

Larry Meadows, a Department of Agriculture official who is one of the people charged with overseeing the nation’s meat supply, said in an interview that the action was problematic. “We’ve never seen anyone use anything like the ‘USDA graded’ label before,” said Meadows, associate deputy administrator of the USDA’s livestock, poultry and feed program. “The label is truthful, but it’s also misleading.”

So the truth is no longer enough for the government agency to determine – it must also include a value judgment. Now, I am highly skeptical the government can do much in the former role (assuring us our food is safer than it would be without USDA/FDA regulations), but even the most ardent pro-government progressive has to admit value judgments are touchy things right? If we can’t allow “government” to determine who we marry (so the reasoning goes), why do they get to delineate the quality of our meat supply?

Meadows said one reason a company might use a more generic label is to save money, or to blur the impact of introducing an unusually high amount of lower-quality beef.

Notice the government regulator automatically assuming malfeasance on the part of the business and its employees. This is the mindset that underlies our entire regulatory state – without the white-hat government officials to counter the black-hat corporate profit-seekers we would live in a Dickensian state with no protections while teetering on the edge of environmental and societal collapse. James Q. Wilson’s public choice theory has gone a long way in discrediting this notion, but there is much work still to do. Note the use of “one” above too, because Meadows totally undermines this further on, something our author, Roberto Ferdman, has chosen to withhold for now.

Giant’s corporate parent, Ahold USA, which was ordered to stop the practice, acknowledged the change in labeling at its stores, which include Martin’s, Stop ’N Shop and the grocery delivery service Peapod.

This paragraph pushes the trite corporation-vs-government narrative in subtler ways, by framing Giant as this faceless corporate entity owned by a blandly named “parent” company, which also happens to own a number of other grocery stores (that you should consider boycotting, stay tuned!). The fact that grocery chains are consolidated under a few conglomerates will come up at the finale of this analysis as well, as it is a real problem.

Tracy Pawelski, a top spokeswoman, said the new label was part of a brand rollout, but the firm later learned from regulators that it was “not permissible” because it did not tell customers the quality of meat. “We apologize to customers for any confusion caused by this labeling error,” she said in a statement.

Having gotten their mandate from the likes of Dr. Offen, USDA has gone ahead and assumed the role of meat rater on top of inspector. Those should be two very separate endeavors, as one clearly has no compelling public interest, but such is the reality of our modern regulatory state — your local grocer must advertise the USDA’s opinion of the “quality” of its meat or face fines and criminal action.

As of Friday, the label was still in use. Pawelski said the company aims to put new meat labels in place this week.

A national problem of mislabeling food

What transpired at Giant and its sibling companies reflects what food safety experts say is a growing concern about food and supplement manufacturers misusing labels. The experts say that labels are supposed to allow customers to make more informed decisions, often granting a distinction of quality or making claims about health and safety, but they have instead turned into advertising vehicles.

“Food labeling has become an incredibly powerful marketing tool,” said Bill Marler, a lawyer and food safety expert who regularly represents consumers in claims against food companies.

Bill Marler is not a disinterested party to the regulatory food world. He is a fame-hungry “super lawyer” who has sued restaurants, grocery chains, and nearly anyone else involved in delivering you the nutrition necessary to live. He picks the hyped-up food scare du jour and starts the litigation that leads to disproportionate civil settlements and government grabs of power that increase prices while reducing freedom and innovation in the food sector. Despite all his self-proclaimed “success,” he ironically cites as his major accomplishments his role in a 1993 E. Coli scare AND a 2007 E. Coli case – so he is either a terrible public policy advocate or (shock!) the government can never adequately screen food to ensure 100% safety, despite its massive power over the food supply.

Food packaging, in particular, has been blamed for alleged customer misinformation. Recently, PepsiCo decided to strip “all natural” claims from its Naked Juice line, saying that the products are natural but that it needed more regulatory guidance. Kellogg’s did the same for some of its Kashi products, while saying it stood by its advertising. Both companies faced lawsuits accusing them of misleading customers.

In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to 17 food manufacturers, mandating that they correct labels that made unfounded health claims. That same year, Dannon agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims it made about the health benefits of its yogurt.

The number of food labels has skyrocketed in recent years, often using dietary, nutritional and cultural trends to nudge consumers to buy a specific good.

Bet you wonder how this has worked out, huh? Think all the “information” provided has led to anything positive in a) the national health or b) your costs at the grocery store?

In 2010, nearly half of all new food and beverage products came with a health- or nutrition-related claim, up from 25 percent in 2001, according to a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Today, the food industry sells $377 billion worth of food labeled with the 35 most common claims, including “natural,” “organic” and “carb conscious,” according to data from the market research firm Nielsen.

Oh, and nearly $400 billion in commerce is done under the government-regulated labeling? I’m sure it will be easy to pry apart Big Government and Big Food to eliminate these then, right?

“Companies have always tried to make their food sound as attractive as possible without violating any laws or regulations,” said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Labels have become a battleground where companies use every trick they can muster, which is a problem because consumers tend to be naive.”

And here comes the progressive Science® lover who think the unwashed masses are too stupid to buy their own food. Mr. “Public Control Interest” is here to tell you rubes how and what to eat – what’s “all-natural,” “organic,” “fat-free,” or “healthy.” 

Food and beverage manufacturers disagree, insisting that labels reflect a desire to provide customers with better information about what they’re buying.

“The primary purpose for claims and nutrition symbols used on food labels is to provide positive dietary guidance,” said Brian Kennedy, director of communications for the Grocery Manufacturing Association, which represents hundreds of food companies. “There is a robust regulatory system in place to ensure the proper use of claims and other symbols on food labels.”

The Big Food lobby supports labels from Big Government because it creates a barrier to entry. Try to start up your own slaughterhouse and you will quickly become frustrated with the impossible number of regulations foisted upon you. This results in less innovation, but big businesses get predictable profit margins and the USDA regulators have less work to do as they oversee a smaller number of plants.

How the USDA learned about Giant’s change

The USDA received its first complaint about the new Giant label on Sept. 22, according to the agency’s Meadows. More queries came flooding in.

I cannot imagine what normal person reports to the USDA on their grocery store, probably while quaking in fear they may die without the proper sticker from their federal regulator. From the USDA site, it takes clicking through three webpages to get redirected to an alternate site for the complaint form, which is a 6-step questionnaire. Only in DC, where everyone is a bureaucrat or an ally of them, could Giant cause a “flood” of complaints.

The USDA grades beef and regulates labeling practices. By law, all beef sold in the United States must be inspected for health safety. For an additional fee, the USDA will grade the product, based on a series of guidelines including tenderness, juiciness, flavor and marbling (the distribution of fat).

The practice, while optional, is effectively an industry standard. About 94 percent of beef sold in the United States is graded, Meadows said.

AND WE COME TO THE CRUX OF THE STORY. Our intrepid Wonkblogger has misled us down a rabbit hole about the regulatory state and the faux offenses of Giant. Instead, what we have is a regulatory agency pissed off that a retailer found a way out of doing what the government thought they should. As opposed to the greedy, shadowy corporation out to harm you and sell you inferior meat, maybe the grocery chain, pressed to make a buck on meat at a time of record high prices, thought that by skipping PAYING FOR AN OPTIONAL INSPECTION they’d save their customers some cash. It is an outlandish thought to our fact-based blogger that perhaps a profit and food safety are not mutually exclusive and/or the optional tests at USDA are just that – optional!

“Choice” grade beef is high quality, and “very tender, juicy and flavorful,” according to the USDA. “Select,” meanwhile, is less tender, has less marbling, and “may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of higher grades.”

Meadows said he didn’t immediately have answers for those who complained, because, like them, he was surprised.

When he reached out to Ahold, the parent of Giant and its siblings, the company’s head of compliance pinned the labeling switch on Ahold’s marketing team, Meadows said.

“He indicated to me that the marketing team came up with the brilliant idea, as he called it,” Meadows said. “But he also agreed that they weren’t being as transparent as they were in the past.”

Meadows said Giant may have seen an opportunity to package different grades of beef with one label, rather than two. Doing so could save the company money by allowing them to store all of its packaged meat together, he said.

So it sounds like Giant had a marketing solution based off an idea to save money on logistics, while avoiding an unnecessary testing of their meat that simply added costs to the end product. Imagine that…

Meadows also said changing the label would prevent a broader negative reaction from customers if the company was using more low-quality meat.

“We knew nothing about the new label, because it was changed without our knowledge,” he said. “It took us by surprise. It wasn’t common at all, it wasn’t normal.”

“Not normal” is usually what you hire your marketing company to produce, no?

Within days, Ahold committed to addressing the issue. Giant is reverting back to its previous practice, whereby most beef is level “choice,” and labeled as such. The retailer also will sell the lower-quality “select” grade.

Pawelski, the Ahold spokeswoman, said the new labels came on Butcher Shop brand meat. The new labels will be “clear to customers and in full compliance with USDA standards.”

This is why we can’t have nice things — because ignorant media types will hype up regulatory power trips into “health and safety” scares that result in a large corporation caving because steady profits are more important than innovation.

Offen, the meat buyer in Bethesda bewildered by the new label, is now a little bit more distrustful of his longtime supermarket.

“It lessened my faith in the company, in the brand,” he said. “But what can you do? It’s not like there are many other options. I’m not even sure what my alternatives are.”

Lack of options notwithstanding, Offen has shied away from buying beef at Giant. He doesn’t plan to resume his habit of purchasing New York strip sirloins until he knows he isn’t getting the lowest quality meat.

“I’d think twice about buying meat there at all,” he said.

And now the lesson from all this: The current food industry is an abomination of regulatory agencies and command-and-control practices handed down from the early 20th century – a time of two world wars and a heyday for aggressively proactive government. The seizure of private farmland and the declaration that anything produced on a farm was a-okay to be regulated to death (see Wicker v Filburn) was unconstitutional and anti-liberty enough in its own day, but today it is especially anachronistic as our global food chains can ensure access to quality, healthy food year-round. The regulatory state of the USDA and FDA squeeze out space for innovation and start-ups, leaving only giant corporate conglomerates that do not have the desire or motivation to think outside the box. And when they do, they get crucified by reporter-bloggers with a progressive agenda and retirees who are scared of change.

Polystyrene and House Nannies

This past week, the House of Representatives showed that nanny state-ism is a bipartisan tendency and that unscientific scaremongering trumps scientific facts.

In a disappointing bit of kowtowing to some obnoxious environmentalist caterwauling, the House Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Ed Cassidy, a former Beohner staffer, announced the end of polystyrene (Styrofoam is a trademarked type from Dow Chemical Co.) in House cafeterias.

Polystyrene foam is a lightweight packaging material accidentally discovered in the 1940s by Ray McIntire of Dow Chemical. By blowing air into heated polystyrene, he made a product that kept the heat off your hand, was lightweight, and cheaper to produce. In the 1990s, chloroflourocarbons were removed from the production process due to environmental concerns.

Thus, my chili container today was a paper/plastic hybrid that was impossible to transport to my office without playing “hot potato” and switching hands constantly. This was never a problem for the last 2 years in the House.

Staffers will now only be able to use “environmentally-friendly” plastic and bio-degradable containers. One can only assume this is in conjunction with the District of Columbia’s unscientific and incredibly disruptive law to ban foam food containers (a law that puts it on par with backward-thinking progressive fiefdoms Seattle and San Francisco). So now using carryout or takeout of any sort in the District or on Capitol Hill is needlessly made less convenient, less expensive, and less energy-conscious than it would be in a freer market.

But good luck getting a fair hearing on that. As quoted in the Roll Call story linked above, a Democrat staffer opined, “we don’t need to do partisan battle over food containers.” Such a high-minded notion from someone who has already imposed their will on others.

The Hill Blotter (a blog on Roll Call) articles detailing this fight go back to 2011, when Nancy Pelosi’s sore loser staffers pitched a fit and claimed Republicans had “chosen to demagogue the issue.” It took Pelosi’s spokesman a single beat to encourage the Architect of the Capitol to ignore Republicans and continue with Pelosi’s pet project. But let’s all shutup now that Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz have won.

The facts, however, militate against the Democrats’ initiative, so we must continue to protest. There are many over-hyped misconceptions out there about polystyrene, so let’s tackle a few.

The worst was expressed by Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) who was concerned the containers exposed his staff to health risks. This is absolute anti-science rubbish. To have any harmful side-effect from using polystyrene, you have to heat it to incredible temperatures and be preparing foods susceptible to soaking up any trace amounts of leaked chemicals (those high in vitamin A). The easiest way to allay this fear is to avoid microwaving in polystyrene (perhaps overly cautious, but a simple one-size-fits-all solution). So on this front, polystyrene is much like aluminum foil. If Honda’s staff smarter than Barry Zuckerkorn with a ding dong, they should be alright.

Another is that polystyrene “harms the environment” (an incredibly vague accusation) because it doesn’t biodegrade. First off, to impact the environment (excuse the vague term, dear reader) in a meaningful way, shouldn’t polystyrene represent some substantial portion of our waste? Maybe 10%? Eh, ok, 5%? Fine – 1%!? Nope, instead polystyrene is less than 1%. So fears of polystyrene decimating the nation’s “environment” are incredibly overwrought.

Additionally, it is simply ignorant of how modern landfills work (which are regulated by heaps of government rules (and if we can’t trust government to save Gaia, who can we?)). As this elementary-level video explains, modern waste management involves a range of methods that keep the stinky trash from polluting the local air and water (and in cases of real pollution, that’s what John Travolta, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts are for). Oh, waste facilities are also mini power plants, recycling the trash to useful ends, i.e., making “clean energy.”

And what are the alternatives to polystyrene as an option? Well, we can shell out 47% more in energy for production and create 148% more solid waste by going with coffee cups with cardboard sleeves. In the House cafeteria, you used to have one style of cup – polystyrene of 8, 12, 16, 24 oz – with plastic lids. Now we add another component – the sleeve – and a cup that takes more energy to make.

But we don’t want to have partisan battle, so House Republicans have caved on their designation of polystyrene as a superior choice for the cafeterias. In this surrender they give in to anti-science bigotry while betraying their inner-nanny. Why couldn’t these capitalist pigs conceive of a free-market solution? (Perhaps the answer to that questions lies in the premise…)

To close, I propose we have a competition – bring in polystyrene and corn-made/compostable cups and containers, set them up side-by-side, and see what consumers choose. If more people’s guilty consciences (after decades of enviro-indoctrination) and uninformed opinions force them to choose plasticy corn-ware, then so be it. But for those of us with clear-eyes and full hearts about our consumption practices who want a sturdy, lightweight, reliable cup that won’t burn our hand – give us polystyrene as an option.