Weekly output: SXSW panel pitch, Verizon Wireless pricing, TPP, Winvote, retargeted e-mails

For much of this week, I took notes from a seat in a room while somebody else stood before me and others to deliver a lecture about one subject or another. It was a bit like college–except I used a laptop instead of paper, I was never unplugged from the outside world, and there was the prospect of getting paid for what I wrote about those talks instead of Mom and Dad paying for me to attend them.

SXSW panel on panels8/10/2015: A Panel On Panels: Things We’ve Learned Not To Do, SXSW PanelPicker

For the past couple of years, I’ve talked about pitching a SXSW panel about nothing other than the weird performance art that is participating in a panel discussion. I finally went ahead and wrote up a proposal, featuring me as well as ACT | The App Association’s Jonathan Godfrey and Tech.Co’s Jen Consalvo. Please vote for it, if you’re so inclined; if it gets a spot on the SXSW program, you’re welcome to show up in Austin and ask a question that’s more of a comment.

8/11/2015: Verizon Wireless’s new plans, WTOP

I answered a few questions from the news station about VzW’s switch to no-contract prices without phone subsidies–speaking via Skype on some iffy conference WiFi. How scratchy did I sound on the air?

8/11/2015: The Latest US Export: Bad Copyright Laws, Yahoo Tech

I’ve had “write a post about the intellectual-property implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal” on my to-do list for a while, and the leak of a much more current draft gave me a reason to turn that into an actual column. Something tells me this won’t be among my most-read stories this month, but it’s a post I had to write.

8/14/2015: Unlocking Democracy: Inside the Most Insecure Voting Machines in America, Yahoo Tech

I spent most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the USENIX Security Symposium in D.C., which gave me a chance to attend Jeremy Epstein’s entertaining and enraging autopsy of the incomprehensibly insecure voting machines on which I cast my ballot for over a decade. This post got a spot on the Yahoo home page over the weekend, in case you’re wondering how it racked up 665 comments.

8/16/2015: How ‘retargeted’ ads sneak into your inbox, USA Today

This is the column I’d meant to write last week–and could do this week when the reader who’d sent the e-mail I couldn’t find re-sent that message after reading about my holdup here.

Tax phobia will make you do stupid things

For years, Virginia has had a problem everybody can identify: It’s running out of money to repair its existing roads, rails, airports and ports, let alone build new transportation infrastructure. The reason why is obvious too–the gas tax, unchanged since 1987 at 17.5 cents a gallon, doesn’t take in enough and will yield increasingly less as fuel economy improves.

Virginia General Assembly logoIt doesn’t require a graphing calculator to conclude that the easiest fix would be to hike the gas tax by a dime–the price per gallon has gone up by that much in the last two weeks, and we all seem to have survived.

But in the confused state of my state’s politics, the gas tax–which is buried in the retail price–has somehow hit an iron ceiling. Raising it, at least among most state Republicans, is now unthinkable; I’ve even seen that low rate sold as a competitive advantage over other states.

(You can also apply that argument to the commonwealth’s exceedingly low cigarette taxes, which have created a thriving market for cigarette smugglers.)

In January, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R.) suggested a way out of this artificial impasse: Get rid of the gas tax entirely and raise the sales tax from 5 to 5.8 percent. Having ensuring that car-free Virginians would underwrite free use of their roads by the rest of the East Coast, this plan would also sock hybrid and electric-vehicle owners with a $100 annual fee.

That economically insane proposal passed the House but got amended by the Senate to a saner plan bill built around adding a nickel to the gas tax and then indexing it to construction-cost inflation, plus a 1 percent wholesale tax.

Alas, the conference committee then went to work and gave birth to a mutt of a bill that passed the House of Delegates today. It would end the retail gas tax but then impose a wholesale tax–3.5 percent on gas, 6.5 percent on diesel–which would then rise with inflation.

That difference is supposed to account for the wear tractor-trailers impose on the roads, but it also punishes drivers who bought diesel cars for their greater efficiency. In the same vein, the $100/year hybrid fee is back. Apparently, Richmond only likes efficient vehicles if they run on gas alone.

The hybrid fee bothers me in particular–we bought a Prius in 2005–but then again we’ve benefited from being exempted from the state’s car tax. And why did we get that freebie? Because our county government wanted to encourage people to buy hybrids, but the state wouldn’t let them push people to buy more efficient vehicles in the most obvious way: yup, raise the gas tax.