Ted Nugent and US Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) Office of Rep. Stockman
Various parts of America have at different times served as refuges for the persecuted. The North was a popular destination for freed and escaped slaves. San Francisco attracted gays. The Emerald Triangle and Appalachia became havens for pot growers and bootleggers.
Now Texas wants in on the action.
On Friday, US Rep. Steve Stockman, a Republican from Friendswood, sent the following message to "all persecuted gun owners and unwanted manufacturers":
Come to Texas!!! The state which believes the whole Bill of Rights should be followed, not just the "politically correct" parts. Your rights will not be infringed upon here, unlike many current local regimes [sic].
Texans who may want abortions or same-sex marriages will doubtless celebrate their state's newfound support for "the whole Bill of Rights." But will gun companies relocate because of it? Their executives want us to think so. After Colorado signed a gun control package last month, two makers of firearms accessories said they'd leave. The weapons makers Beretta, Colt, Mossberg, and Stag Arms have threatened to yank factories from Connecticut and Maryland if those states make good on new gun restrictions.
Of course, any Texan who actually knows guns will tell you that the complainers are all hat and no cattle. State laws requiring background checks or banning certain types of weapons won't crimp manufacturers, who sell their guns nationwide and globally. Just take the example of Beretta and Mossberg: These companies are headquartered in or source their guns from, respectively, Italy and Turkey, where highly restrictive firearms laws haven't slowed down some $150 million in yearly exports of rifles, pistols, and shotguns to the United States.
Stockman's open letter is really more about shooting off his mouth than defending the rights of shooters. It's about burnishing his reputation as "the new Michele Bachmann," a comparison that, in all fairness, is kind of like calling Madonna the new Lady Gaga.
During a scandalous and painfully brief congressional stint in the mid-1990s, Stockman earned infamy for defending the militia movement in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and suggesting that Bill Clinton raided Waco's Branch Davidian compound in order to build support for gun control. Now back in Congress after wandering the political desert for 15 years, Stockman, a bespectacled born-again Christian, has threatened to launch impeachment proceedings against President Obama if he enacts gun control measures. In February, Stockman brought has-been rocker/offhand racist/wannabe presidential assassin Ted Nugent to the State of the Union address. (We caught Nugent's performance—or was it performance art—in San Francisco not too long ago.)
None of which is to say that Stockman won't succeed in getting some gun nuts to move across the Red River. Heck, he might even make the rest of us safer.
For the first time in more than four decades of surveying national attitudes towards marijuana, the Pew Research Center announced today that a majority of Americans believe that pot should be legal. Pew's latest phone survey, conducted over the course of five days last month, found that 52 percent of Americans support pot legalization and 45 percent oppose it.
The most surprising support for tokers' rights came from some of the most socially conservative parts of America. Among residents of the 26 states that have not decriminalized pot or enacted medical marijuana legislation, a whopping 50 percent backed legalization in the poll, compared to only 47 percent who opposed it.
Shifting views on cannabis have a lot to do with changing demographics. The gigantic Millennial generation supports legalization at a rate of nearly 3 to 1. Yet Boomers' views have also shifted, or, you might say, boomeranged: In 1978, 47 percent of Boomers favored legalization, but their support plummeted to 17 percent by 1990 before slowly inching back up, finally hitting the 50 percent mark just this year.
As memories of Reefer Madness and the '60s culture wars continue to fade, more Americans are divorcing pot smoking from notions of morality:
Instead of a crusade against the devil, Americans increasingly view the war on weed in economic terms—and they don't like what they see. A full 72 percent of poll respondents agreed that "government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more then they are worth."
In 1791, America's founding fathers enacted a constitutional right to bear arms, in part to help citizen militias protect the homeland against foreign invaders. Some 300 years later, foreigners have become some of the Second Amendment's biggest beneficiaries and shrillest advocates. In 2009, the United States imported 3.9 million guns, some 16 times more than we exported. Those imports accounted for 43 percent of new guns available to Americans that year. The vast majority—think Beretta, Glock, Taurus, and other name brands—came from countries with far stricter gun control laws than we have in the United States.
Every time another mass shooter unleashes a torrent of bullets in a school or theater, the world puzzles over America's permissive approach to gun ownership. A story following up on the Sandy Hook massacre in Austria's largest daily, Krone, noted the apparent link between "lax weapons laws" in the United States and our "high rate of gun killings, compared to other western nations." But the newspaper didn't mention how Austrian gun makers profit from and help perpetuate those lax weapons laws. In 2009, a whopping 67 percent of Austria's gun exports went to the United States. Here's the breakdown for our top 10 foreign suppliers.
Defense cuts have forced commanders at Southern California's Naval Base Ventura County to idle planes and cancel troop deployments, but you'd never know it from looking at nearby defense contractor Northrup Grumman: Its stock price has risen 9 percent in less than a month, buoyed by brisk sales of drones such as the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which will be deployed at the base this summer.
Indeed, lean times in the public sector appear to be helping drone manufacturers, as they pitch unmanned aircraft as cheaper replacements for a wide range of activities involving human labor and/or dangerous conditions. "We can capitalize on this budget-constrained environment to keep this development going," explained Janis Pamiljans, Northrup Grumman's head of unmanned air systems.
Pamiljans was addressing a who's who of manufacturers, hobbyists, and public officials who showed up at the naval base last week during a conference on civilian applications of drones (the industry calls them "unmanned aerial vehicles"), which could constitute a $90 billion market within a decade—or so says the industry's trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). "We are not darkening the skies yet," said Richard Christiansen, the vice-president of the NASA contractor Sierra Lobo Inc., "but we are poised."
Hailing a taxi in San Francisco used to be about as easy as panning for gold, but that was before the advent of Uber, the San Francisco-based tech company that's shaking up the taxi and town-car businesses in major cities. Tapping a button on my iPhone's Uber app last Thursday produced a Yellow Cab at my downtown office in less than two minutes. "It is the best thing, my friend!" my beaming driver, Solomon Alemayhu, said of the GPS-based cab-hailing service. He likes the convenience factor so much, in fact, that he's willing to overlook allegations that Uber is improperly skimming from its drivers' tips.
According to the company website, Uber's smartphone-based payment system automatically adds to the rider's tab a $1 booking fee plus a 20 percent gratuity "for the driver." But as Alemaythu and I drove through Chinatown, he told me that half of that gratuity actually goes to Uber. If that's true—and Uber insists that it is not—then the company would be misleading consumers and breaking the law in some cities.
In Boston, for instance, Uber faces a class-action lawsuit over the tip-skimming allegation. Filed in late December on behalf of taxi driver David Lavitman, it accuses Uber of violating a state law stipulating that "no employer or other person" may take any portion of a worker's gratuity. The lawsuit refers to a company document that explains how Uber and the driver divide the earnings: "We will automatically deposit the metered fare + 10% tip to your bank account each week," it says. It cites the following example of how Uber would handle a $10 fare:
Uber Boston general manager Mike Pao says the document was just a promotional handout and doesn't reflect Uber's actual partnership agreement with drivers. "Since we launched here in Boston, the agreement with taxi driver partners has been that 10 percent of the metered fare goes to Uber as a marketing fee," he insists. "Uber does not touch the tip."
When I asked Pao for a copy of Uber's partnership agreement, he referred me to an Uber "terms and conditions" page that lacks specific details about how Uber and drivers share profits. I repeated my request to Uber's national PR guy, Kenneth Baer, but only received another statement from Pao: "Uber takes 10% of the metered fare as commission, plus the rider's $1 booking fee, and all drivers are told this during the on-boarding process."
The next day, Uber's explanation of its tips policy seemed to have changed again [see below for comment from Uber]. "We don't take our cut from the fare or the tip," Uber's head of policy, Corey Owens, told me when I ran into him outside Uber's headquarters. "What happens is that the driver pays Uber a commission based on the services rendered." He added that the commission amount varies widely depending on city and partner company and refused to cite any specific numbers.
Uber is just "backtracking off of what was very clearly the arrangement between it and the drivers from the beginning," contends Lavitman's attorney, Hillary Schwab.
To some drivers, the wording of the deal may not matter so much—the company's "commission" would be the same whether it's half of a 20 percent gratuity or a 10 percent surcharge on the fare. The distinction may matter more to passengers, however. In October, Uber rider Caren Ehret filed a class-action lawsuit in Chicago arguing that its practice of snapping up a portion of the "gratuity" charge had defrauded her and other passengers by making the "metered fare" appear misleadingly low. "She has a right for her gratuity to be remitted to the driver," contends Ehret's attorney, Hall Adams III.
These skirmishes highlight the types of challenges faced by startups aiming to buck an established industry with smartphone-based transportation apps. The San Francisco ride-sharing services Lyft and SideCar rely on drivers who lack taxi medallions; they bypass the regulated market by asking riders for "voluntary donations" in lieu of fares. Uber also features town-car services called Uber Black and Uberx (a lower-cost version that utilizes hybrids)—and it's planning to enter the ride-sharing market too. All of these services appeal to consumers because they're cheap, convenient, and allow people to rate their drivers, adding a layer of accountability to an industry with notoriously bad customer service.
Yet Uber's honeymoon with its hometown may be coming to an end. With increasing competition, it recently cut its town car fares in San Francisco by 10 percent. Late last year, the California Public Utilities Commission threatened Uber with $20,000 fine for allegedly ignoring insurance regulations, then began drafting a new set of ride sharing rules that could give Uber the squeeze.
This past November, two long-time San Francisco cabbies filed a class-action lawsuit against Uber claiming that it breaks the law by dispatching limos and town cars that are not licensed as taxis. "Simply stated, Uber's 'partner' drivers, who are operating without restriction, are taking passengers, and thus income, away from legally sanctioned taxicab drivers who are literally playing by the rules," the suit says.
"My biggest beef with these guys is that this app is allowing them to break the law, and the Pubic Utilities Commission is allowing them to get away with it, because they have $50-million venture capitalists as backers," says Barry Korengold, the president of the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association. "The cab drivers don't have that kind of money to hire lawyers to fight this."
Uber's defenders write off the complaints as sour grapes from a monopolistic industry that loathes competition and accountability. But the grumbling is growing among Uber's own partners; in recent weeks, dozens of Uber Black drivers have picketed the company's San Francisco headquarters over what they consider unfair labor practices. A banner held up last Friday read, "Stop stealing our tips!"
Alemayhu, my taxi driver last Thursday, was trying to keep a positive attitude about the taxi-tech revolution. He said he hoped Yellow Cab's own taxi-hailing app could eventually defeat Uber at its own game. "They can beat them on price, easy!" he said, snapping his fingers. "They just have to change their system."
UPDATE: Uber representative Kenneth Baer says that Owens was only referring to Uber Black drivers, who, unlike Uber's taxi driver partners, do not receive any tips through Uber's payment system.