Archives: 03/2009

EDLs on the Ropes

With the REAL ID Act floundering in state resistance, DHS officials and government contractors have been pinning their hopes on “enhanced drivers licenses” or EDLs. These are state-issued driver’s licenses that the Department of Homeland Security and State Department have agreed to treat as proof of citizenship for purposes of border crossings.

With the flexibility of doing things by fiat, outside of a statutory process, the bureaucracy had gotten some traction with this ID system – most notable for its use of long-range RFID (radio frequency identification tags) to track people.

But news comes today that the Canadian province of Saskatchewan is scrapping its plans to create EDLs for U.S. border crossings, mostly due to cost.

“I was comfortable in the $25 to $50 range, but when I saw those costs (for an enhanced driver’s licence) go above $50 and nearing the cost of getting a passport, the argument for just having a passport became stronger and stronger and I think logically we’ve made the right decision here,” [Crown Corporations Minister Ken] Cheveldayoff said.

With more vocal opposition to RFID-based tracking in EDLs south of the border (that is, here in the states), the U.S. EDL may run into more than just cost concerns. And there is discomfort brewing with federal agencies cooking up an identity system on their own.

For all its faults, at least REAL ID had a statutory mandate. EDLs could end up being anything bureaucrats want them to be, which could be worse than what Congress put together in REAL ID.

Slashed?

The Hill is reporting that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) “has slashed Obama’s proposed increases in domestic discretionary spending from 12 percent to 6, according to lawmakers who met with Conrad.”

Unemployment is rising, businesses are failing, and folks are truly “slashing” their spending habits.  But in Washington, to “slash” means to increase spending 6% instead of 12%.  I’m sure most hard-working Americans – the poor stiffs whose taxes will pay for this “slash” – wished their budgets were in line for a 6% increase this year.

Tuesday Podcast: ‘Anthony Kennedy’s Modest Libertarianism’

Author Helen J. Knowles calls Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy a “modest libertarian” in her new book The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty, which analyzes Kennedy’s jurisprudence.

In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Knowles explains why she chose to recognize Justice Kennedy as a “modest libertarian”:

If you line all the justices up and say… did they vote for the individual, or for the government? Kennedy is overwhelmingly in favor of the individual rather than the government, far more than any of his colleagues.

Awesome, Fearsome, Awesome - Or Maybe Silly

This video is making the rounds because Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) muses in it that perhaps the Internet shouldn’t have been invented.

He immediately grants, “That’s a stupid thing to say” - perhaps for political reasons, or perhaps because he recognizes that the Internet makes us much better off despite every risk it carries and security flaw in it.

But he goes on to overstate cybersecurity risks excessively, breathlessly, and self-seriously. Not quite to the point of stupid - maybe we can call it “silly.”

The Department of Defense, he says, is “attacked” three million times a day. Well, yeah, but these “attacks” are mostly repetitious use of the same attack, mounted by “script kiddies” - unsophisticated know-nothings who get copies of others’ attacks and run them just to make trouble. The defense against this is to continually foreclose attacks and genres of attack as they develop, the way the human body develops antibodies to germs and viruses.

It’s important work, and it’s not always easy, but securing against attacks is an ongoing, stable practice in network management and a field of ongoing study in computer science. The attacks may continue to come, but it doesn’t really matter when the immunities and failsafes are in place and continuously being updated.

More important than this kind of threat inflation is the policy premise that the Internet should be treated as critical infrastructure because some important things happen on it.

Of cyber attack, Rockefeller says, “It’s an act … which can shut this country down. Shut down its electricity system, its banking system, shut down really anything we have to offer. It is an awesome problem.”

Umm, not really. Here’s Cato adjunct scholar Tim Lee, commenting on a report about the Estonian cyber attacks last year:

[S]ome mission-critical activities, including voting and banking, are carried out via the Internet in some places. But to the extent that that’s true, the lesson of the Estonian attacks isn’t that the Internet is “critical infrastructure” on par with electricity and water, but that it’s stupid to build “critical infrastructure” on top of the public Internet. There’s a reason that banks maintain dedicated infrastructure for financial transactions, that the power grid has a dedicated communications infrastructure, and that computer security experts are all but unanimous that Internet voting is a bad idea.

Tim has also noted that the Estonia attacks didn’t reach parliament, ministries, banks, and media - just their Web sites. Calm down, everyone.

But in the debate over raising the bridge or lowering the river, Rockefeller is choosing the policy that most enthuses and involves him: Get critical infrastructure onto the Internet and get the government into the cyber security business.

That’s a recipe for disaster. The right answer is to warn the operators of key infrastructure to keep critical functions off the Internet and let markets and tort law hold them responsible should they fail to maintain themselves operational.

I have written elsewhere about maintaining private responsibility for cyber security. My colleague Ben Friedman has written about who owns cyber security and more on the great cyber security freakout.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: The Toxic Duo

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has finally unveiled details about his bailout plan. Not surprisingly, he plans on propping up insolvent (but politically influential) financial institutions. Even worse, there is no effort to shut down – or even reform – the two government-sponsored enterprises that deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the financial crisis. Yet as Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute explains in this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are at the epicenter of the housing bubble and subsequent damage to financial markets.

America’s Problem: Too Little Government Lending!

Suffering through a massive housing bust spurred by the activities of utterly irresponsible government-sponsored entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, may have led you to believe that the government should stop subsidizing the irresponsible and improvident.   Indeed, with government spending and lending off the charts, you might even have come to believe that Washington should cut back on its spending and lending. 

Silly you.

According to the Obama administration, more spending and lending is in order.  And by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Indeed, preparing the government for even more spending and lending apparently is the goal of current policy, which already includes a lot of spending and lending.

Christina Romer, Chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, was interviewed by CNN’s John King on Sunday.  She helpfully sought to clear up the confusion exhibited by  those of us who thought the current economic crisis resulted from irresponsible spending and lending.  According to CNN:

KING: Mr. Liddy said he is going to break up AIG. Do we need to break up Fannie and Freddie?

ROMER: I think that is certainly going to be an issue going forward. I think it should be part of the overall financial regulatory reform, to figure out what is the best way.

Again, you know, anytime we have now got taxpayer money on the line, what we have an obligation to do is do it in a way that protects the American taxpayer. What is going to be the way that gets these institutions safe, gets them doing what we need them to do, which is lend like crazy, and just basically functioning again for the economy.

Of course. 

“Lend like crazy” really is the “just basically functioning” of Fannie and Freddie.  But it is beyond question that this behavior helped spark the current crisis.  Unfortunately, Dr. Romer does not explain exactly how we can make these fiscally irresponsible, money-losing organizations “safe.”  Nor does she enlighten us on how having Fannie and Freddie ”lend like crazy” will have better results than before. 

If this is the advice President Barack Obama is getting from what traditionally is one of the most economically responsible agencies in the executive branch, imagine what he is hearing elsewhere.  Buckle up, for the economic ride is likely to get much worse.

Monday Podcast: ‘The Push for Universal Pre-K’

The evidence is weak that Pre-K education improves the long-term prospects of public school kids, says Adam Schaeffer, Cato education policy analyst.

In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Schaeffer explains why the push for universal preschool is really all about money, monopoly and misdirection:

The scale problem is a massive one and they haven’t really addressed it. State programs run into these problems as well. As they scale up the program, we see that there is no overall change in outcomes for the children in the state. Their test scores don’t go up.