Archives: May, 2006

Driven to Distraction

Not 24 hours after President Bush signed into law the latest round of tax cuts (which have no effect on the size of government), Republicans from around town gathered to gush about their Medicare prescription drug program (which increases the size of government).

I’ll not name names, but there were a few faces at the GOP love-fest who, in their hearts, truly want to reform Medicare.  The greatest tragedy of Part D might be the way it has distracted those Republicans from that purpose.

(Erratum: On a previous occasion, I accused the GOP of throwing your tax dollars off the back of a truck.  It appears Republicans have been using a bus rather than a truck.  I apologize for the error.)

TechLawJournal Parses Phone Company Denials

TechLawJournal has carefully parsed the statements issued by Verizon and BellSouth denying participation in the NSA spying program. I’ll quote TLJ liberally here, with permission.

Regarding the BellSouth statement, TLJ notes that it took three working days and two weekend days to prepare a three paragraph response. As to the substance:

BellSouth uses the phrases “customer calling information” and “customer calling records”. In contrast, the USA Today article uses the phrases “phone call records” and “domestic call records”. BellSouth associates the word “customer” with the word “record”. There is a difference between what USA Today wrote, and what BellSouth now denies.

BellSouth portrays the USA Today article as asserting that BellSouth provided customer identifying information combined with the customer’s call information. In fact, the USA Today article only asserts that BellSouth turned over call information. Moreover, the USA Today article points out the difference. It states that “Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA’s domestic program”. The article added that “But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.”

Thus, the BellSouth statement denies something that USA Today did not assert, and leaves undenied that which USA Today did actually assert.

Of course, it is another question whether BellSouth, in writing its statement, understood there to be a difference between “customer calling records” and “phone call records”, and intended its statement to constitute a non-denial.

On Verizon’s May 16 statement:

Verizon’s six paragraph statement is longer than BellSouth’s, but employs the same approach. It restates the assertions of USA Today, with variations, and then denies its restatements.

Verizon uses the phrases “customers’ domestic calls”, “customer phone records”, and “customer records or call data”. Like BellSouth, it adds the word “customer”.  USA Today wrote about “phone call records”, without the word “customer”.

Verizon does at one point deny that it provided “any call data”, but it then immediately follows this with the phrase “from those records”, which is a reference back to “customer phone records”. This leaves open the possibility that it provided “call data” that it retrieved from a database other that “customer phone records”.

This is helpful insight from a dogged, independent reporter.  And subscription rates are not too expensive either.

(Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront

Do Libertarians Have a Prayer?

Many people think political philosophy comes in two varieties, liberal or conservative. The former values social freedoms while seeking government control over capitalist acts between consenting adults (in Robert Nozick’s wonderful phrase). Conservatives defend economic freedom but not other acts between consenting adults. As a philosophy that seeks both social and economic liberty, libertarianism has sometimes seemed at the margins of American politics. A recent poll throws doubt on that assumption.

The Pew Research Center measured political ideology based on six questions from one of their 2004 surveys. Three of the questions concerned economic liberty, the others social freedoms. Liberals scored high on social freedoms, conservatives on economic liberty, and populists had little regard for either. Libertarians, as you might expect, consistently supported liberty in both dimensions.

Pew estimates that 9 percent of Americans are libertarians. That might seem low until you realize that 18 percent are liberal, 16 percent populist, and 15 percent conservative. Pew calls the rest of the nation “ambivalents” who have no firm ideological outlook. As Scott Keeter, the author of the Pew study, concludes “libertarians, though the smallest of the ideological groups, represent a substantial percentage of the population.”

A lot of what Pew discovered about libertarians may not surprise you. They are more likely than the rest of the population to have a college degree, to be in the highest income category, and to come from the West. On the issues, libertarians are more likely to think homosexuality should be accepted, to favor stem-cell research, to believe businesses make a fair profit, and to find free trade good for the nation.

But some of Pew’s other findings about libertarians are more unexpected, at least to me. Libertarians are 50 percent more likely to declare themselves “secular” than the general population. Still, only about 12 percent of the libertarians surveyed identified themselves this way. Libertarians are also more likely than the general population to identify as a “white Catholic.” Finally, almost two-thirds of the libertarians said they go to church at least once a month. That’s a little less than the general population, but a lot more than I would have guessed.

Half of the libertarians identified with or leaned toward the Republican party. At the same time, 41 percent affiliated themselves with the Democrats. Sen. Kerry got 40 percent of the libertarian vote in 2004. President Bush did better among libertarians than you might expect given the party identification numbers. Bush got 57 percent of libertarian vote last time. But as they say, “if the election were held today….”

I have saved the best for last. One-third of Pew’s libertarians are between 18 and 29 years of age. Libertarians are thus fifty percent more likely to be found among the young than in the population as a whole. They are also much more likely to be found among the youngest cohort than are conservatives or populists.

So the present may seem bleak for libertarians. But just wait. Help is on the way.

Identification: Whom do People Trust?

Ask the average American where to go to get an identification card and they will tell you, of course, to go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Across the country, DMVs are the dominant source of identification cards, with perhaps the State Department in second because it issues passports. People who think about this carefully might realize that many corporations also issue identification cards.

So, with governments eclipsing all other issuers, who do you suppose Americans trust to issue identity credentials? 


A Ponemon Institute study, funded by Unisys, has found that banking institutions are most trusted to issue and manage identity credentials (graph, page 6).  The least trusted organizations are police and law enforcement. 

Banks were trusted on every continent, and tax authorities were distrusted on every continent. Police authorities are distrusted deeply in the United States and Latin America, but not as much in Asia and Europe. Curiously, the postal service is trusted very highly in the United States, while registering little reaction, positive or negative, on other continents.

To avert a national ID, “identity management” is the way to go: cards, tokens, and devices that share only the information required for transactions. Who should be issuing those things? Banks and other private entities. 

More info and brilliant insight here.

(Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)

Mart Laar, Friedman Prize Winner

Tonight, in Chicago, Cato is hosting the formal presentation of the third biennial Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. This year’s winner is Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Estonia responsible for guiding his country’s successful transition from communism to a democratic market economy.

We are now in the fifteenth year since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and unfortunately many of the former Soviet republics have made little progress in either economic or political reform. Estonia, however, is a glittering exception. According to the Economic Freedom of the World report, the country now ranks 12th out of 127 countries in economic freedom. Freedom House gives Estonia its highest rankings for both political rights and civil liberties. And the World Economic Forum rates Estonia 20th out of 117 in its Growth Competitiveness Index.

For Laar to win the Friedman Prize is especially fitting, since Laar’s bold free-market reforms were inspired by Friedman himself. Before entering politics, Laar was a historian. “I had read only one book on economics – Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. I was so ignorant at the time that I thought that what Friedman wrote about the benefits of privatization, the flat tax and the abolition of all customs rights, was the result of economic reforms that had been put into practice in the West. It seemed common sense to me and, as I thought it had already been done everywhere, I simply introduced it in Estonia, despite warnings from Estonian economists that it could not be done. They said it was as impossible as walking on water. We did it: we just walked on the water because we did not know that it was impossible.”

Here is Laar’s 1992 book, War in the Woods, on Estonian resistance to Soviet occupation during and after World War II. And here is a paper presented by Laar at a 2004 Cato conference in Russia on Estonia’s reform experience.

Rapanos v. United States: The Blog

The Pacific Legal Foundation is the lead counsel in one of the biggest cases of the Supreme Court’s current term: Rapanos v. United States, a case involving egregious interference with private development by federal and state environmental regulators. In anticipation of the Court’s decision, PLF has started a blog on the case, which you can access here. For more Rapanos fun, read a short Wall Street Journal write-up about the story behind the case here. You can read the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in the case (written by yours truly) here.

The Left vs. Conservation

I was on NPR’s “News & Notes with Ed Gordon” today to discuss gasoline prices with Julianne Malveaux. It was a rather bizarre experience. Apparently, the Left is of many, many minds when it comes to energy conservation—and all of those minds seem to coexist in the same head.

On the one hand, Dr. Malveaux was quite adamant that we need to “incentivize people” (her phrase) to use mass transit. But, on the other hand, she was equally adamant that gasoline prices were too high and had to be brought down by hook or crook.

Question 1: Wouldn’t increasing the marginal cost of driving provide the most powerful incentive for people to use mass transit?

Question 2: Wouldn’t decreases in marginal driving costs reduce the incentive people would have to use mass transit?

I tried to press her on those points but couldn’t get a straight or even understandable answer out of her.

When I tried to point out that how much people spend on gasoline is largely under their control and that high gasoline costs will do more to encourage conservation than anything government could do, I was treated to a rather loud rant about why most people had no option but to keep buying gas and that only ivory tower, doctrinaire Cato types would ever believe to the contrary.

Now, this is really something. Up until recently, environmentalists and conservationists have gone on at quite some length about how people can and should conserve energy. When I took a page from that book and suggested that people could sell their SUVs, pickups, and luxury sedans for more fuel efficient cars, I was told that this would be too expensive for working Americans to even consider (huh?). When I suggested that people could move closer to work or to mass transit hubs if they wanted to cut their commute costs, I was accused of crazy talk. When I suggested that car-pooling is always possible for those who don’t want to pick up stakes, I was informed that this is yet more crazy talk. When I suggested that people may want to rethink how often and how far they drive around town on errands or the nature of their summertime vacations, I was accused of peddling nonsense. When I argued that high gasoline prices are actually something that conservationists and environmentalists should embrace, I was dismissed as a nutcase.

Apparently, all that talk about conservation from the Left was smoke. It’s actually an impossible task, quite beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.