Archives: 07/2008

Supreme Court Rules, But Behold the Rigmarole

Dick Heller won in the Supreme Court, but the D.C. government is creating a rigmarole of a process for residents to exercise their constitutional right.  Looks like everyone one is going to need a lawyer to guide them through the morassat least in the near term.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher says that DC officials held a press conference where they seemed to be amused by the cumbersome registration process they have created: “There are circumstances where it could take months,” Police Chief Cathy Lanier conceded, and you could almost hear the elected officials around her emitting “heh-hehs” of mischievous delight.   Read the whole thing

Louisiana Rejects REAL ID

Melissa Ngo reports and comments on her “Privacy Lives” blog about the passage of a particularly strong anti-REAL ID law in Louisiana.

There’s a gem in the comments from a military veteran on the notion that the Veterans Admininstration might withhold benefits to those not having a national ID as required under the REAL ID Act:

I would suggest those who are in office stop thinking you are in control of the American people. I for one went to war once, I am not afraid to do so again. The government serves the people, not the other way around.

Now We’re Getting Somewhere!

Just yesterday, I was bewailing politicians’ (and others’) unwillingness to take on fundamental questions about what kind of education system has been—and is now—most compatible with American goals and values. It’s much easier to wax poetic about American public schooling as some time-immemorial backbone of the nation than face the educational truth.

Well, though he didn’t debunk all the mythology propping up public schooling, yesterday John McCain offered one of the boldest challenges to the bunk-based status quo I’ve heard from a politician in a while. In a speech to the NAACP, McCain declared that if elected president he would fight for “school choice for all who want it.”

Unfortunately, one of the implications of McCain’s promise is that the federal government would secure choice under his presidency. But outside of Washington D.C., providing anything in education—choice or otherwise—is beyond the feds’ constitutional purview, as Andrew Coulson explains here. This must be made abundantly clear to McCain and Senator Obama, who promises to throw everything into education including the science-lab sink. It’s also disturbing that in the question and answer period following his speech, McCain promised to “fully fund” the No Child Left Behind Act, a change from previous McCain-camp statements.

Despite these major federalism problems, McCain’s speech is a welcome step forward, at least in spirit. At last, though he might not know who should provide it, a major candidate for national office is declaring that school choice for all is the key to success.

Obama vs. Sudan

Here’s Obama, being interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, on why he supports creating a no-fly zone in Sudan to protect Darfurians (whether the UN backs it or not):

In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has a self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity.

This formulation, which comes ironically just after Obama praises George Kennan and realism, demonstrates a dangerous confusion between charity and self-defense. Tragic as it is, the civil war underway in Darfur (whether or not it’s a genocide, the government backed violence against civilians is part of a counter-rebel campaign) has virtually no effect on US welfare. If instability in that part of Africa hurts trade, the impact is infinitesimal. The idea that war in Sudan or Chad would cause terrorism is based an analysis of failed states that does not stand empirical scrutiny. Sure, terrorists have participated in civil strife in several failed states in the Muslim world, but that hardly proves that Sudan or Chad would be a terrorist haven, especially terrorists that target Americans. In fact, it is American participation in conflicts in the Muslim world that makes us a terrorist target, not the absence of our stabilization efforts.

If Obama is so concerned about the violence against civilians in Sudan endangering Americans, why is he only advocating a no-fly zone? Sudan has an air force, but the combatants in Darfur mostly travel on the ground. If our safety is at stake in Darfur, why not buttress the obviously insufficient African Union force with US ground forces?

But an even better way to end chaos in Sudan would be to take the side of the Sudanese state against the rebels, instead of aiding the dissolution of Sudan via a no-fly zone.

Probably Obama does not really believe that our interests are at stake in Sudan but feels compelled to buttress a humanitarian argument with an interest-based one. Advocates of intervening in the Balkans and Iraq used the same all-good-things-go-together trick. Bombing Serbia to protect Kosovars was supposed to save NATO, protect Europe from instability and so on. Invading Iraq was supposed to spread freedom in the region, remove a threat to Saudi Arabia and get our troops home from there, solve the Arab-Israel conflict, quell terrorism, make the North Koreans and Iranians quit pursuing nukes, and produce several other miracles.

This sort of oversell confuses public debate and makes it harder to end interventions. If your sense of charity says that we should get mixed up in another civil war in Sudan, you’re probably not going to want to pay a very high price in blood and money. But once you told everyone that they can never sleep soundly unless Darfurians do, it’s a lot harder to hit the road if the war turns ugly.

Obama’s position on Darfur is indicative of a larger problem in his foreign policy view, which you might call a belief in (or rhetorical commitment to) the indivisibility of security, a tendency to define insecurity anywhere as a threat to security everywhere. He wants to expand the ground forces so we can better fight occupational wars to fix failed states, and agrees with John McCain that we need to surge troops and resources into Afghanistan to transform it into a stable state, which is the wrong objective there. He thinks fighting terrorism requires that he “make it focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” a project that will dovetail nicely with our current President’s plan to end evil. This approach to foreign policy is so expansive that it is unrealistic and thus inoperative. That makes it loose talk, which is less harmful than neoconservatism, but nothing to write home about.

On Google-Yahoo! as an Antitrust Problem

My favorite anti-Google gadfly Scott Cleland has a post up entitled “Debunking the Google-Yahoo Antitrust Myths” in which he purports to debunk some erroneous thinking about the Google-Yahoo! deal.

Scott often furnishes the world with interesting ideas in an over-the-top way, but here I think he’s gotten it wrong.

He walks through a series of purported “myths” about the antitrust implications of Google-Yahoo!, which got a hearing in the Senate this week. I want to walk through just a couple of them because I think he’s framing the relevant market wrongly.

Cleland’s “Myth #1” is that there can’t be an antitrust problem as long as consumers are just one click away from a competitive search engine. Rather, he says, “Google is becoming a de facto essential facility for advertisers seeking to reach the global Internet audience.”

It’s helpful for him to frame the antitrust discussion of Google as being not about consumers’ access to search, but about advertisers access to eyeballs. The low barriers to entry for Google competitors is relevant, though. Too much success on the part of Google in capturing advertising market share will draw competitors to go after Google’s traffic, which is obviously crucial for holding advertising market share. They can do so easily because, indeed, consumers are one click away from competitive search engines and every other site or service they might visit.

“Myth #2: There can be no antitrust problem because Google and search advertising comprise such a small percentage of the advertising market.” Debunking it, Cleland says:

The relevant antitrust market is search advertising because there is no competitive substitute for search advertising. As Google has successfully convinced advertisers, search is a unique way to reach consumers because people self-identify their intentions through active search that they don’t do when they are a passive consumers of mass media advertising through: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, or direct mail. Moreover, the search medium enables collection of unprecedented private information about intentions, preferences, economic suitability, etc., which enables unprecedented “targeting” of users with “relevant” advertising that consumers will be most receptive to.

(characteristically quirky formatting omitted)

This I think is wrong. Cleland has whittled down the market to where Google has unique strengths, but that is not the relevant market to this dispassionate, forward-thinking observer. Of course Google has convinced advertisers of how special search advertising is, but that doesn’t make it true. There are plenty of ways to target advertising equally well or better than through search, and the large consumer data and targeted marketing industry is there because of it. (Here’s the DMOZ directory of “micromarketing” firms, for example.)

What’s more, there are plenty of ways to target equally well or better than with search terms. Providers of hosted email, hosted documents, chat, microblogging, and other services have access to information as good or better than what Google has about people’s particular interests at particular times. They are all positioned to deploy targeted ad systems like Google’s keyed to the content that they process for users.

Whether they deploy such a thing or not depends on whether Google is able to reap higher than ordinary rents from its access to search information. If Google-Yahoo! is prevented from going forward and the two companies are prevented from increasing their profits through the combination – it remains speculative that they will – a signal to potential competitors will not go out, and innovations along many vectors will not materialize.

With due respect: Not this time, Scott! Let the markets and the technologies play out as they will.

McCain to NAACP: It’s Time for School Choice

John McCain told the NAACP this morning that after decades of broken promises by the nation’s public school systems it is time to give all parents an easy choice of public and private schools. He is right, so long as he doesn’t propose a private school choice program at the national level.

The merits of wide-open parental choice — and the basic justice of it —are compelling, but the Constitution mentions neither the word “education” nor the word “school.” Congress and the president simply do not have a mandate to create such a program. More than that, a national private school choice program risks extending pervasive government regulation over private schools from the Potomac to the Pacific, homogenizing the options available to families and thus defeating the entire point of school choice. It is far better and safer for presidential candidates to tout the merits of school choice and encourage their state-level counterparts to put these programs into place. In that way, the varying experiences of the states – the so-called “laboratory of federalism” – can help to identify and eliminate problems in their implementation.

Back-Alley Long Division?

Apparently, when your child is being taught “new math” and you want him to learn the old-fashioned way, helping him to carry the one can make you feel a bit criminal.

Of course, if we’d let all parents choose their kids’ schools instead of forcing them to support a single system of government institutions, this wouldn’t be a problem. Those who want their children to learn new math could pick schools that teach it, while those who prefer good ol’ formulas could do the same.

It’s a solution so obvious almost any reasoning approach will hit it. Unfortunately, politics isn’t almost any reasoning approach. It’s a process so convoluted that it makes putting two and two together as complicated as solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, and misses even the most sensible of answers.