Archives: June, 2009

House Votes against “Strip-Search” Machines

Yesterday the House adopted an amendment to the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act that would prohibit the TSA from using Whole Body-Imaging machines for primary screening at airports and require the TSA to give passengers the option of a pat-down search in place of going through a WBI machine, among other things.

You can read the amendment here, and the roll call vote will soon be up here. Use it to decide whether to cheer or jeer your member of Congress.

More on strip-search machines here, here, and here.

Federal Workers Not Underpaid

The head of the Office of Personnel Management claims that federal workers are underpaid compared to private sector workers by 20 percent, on average. Federal unions and other cheerleaders for the bureaucracy have been making similar claims for years.

I’ve pointed out the dramatic acceleration of federal compensation over the last decade and the excessive generosity of federal worker benefits.

Federal workers are not underpaid.

Now a Human Resources expert writing in The Washington Post backs up my claims. Lily Garcia writes:

The primary advantages of working for the federal government are generous benefits, solid pay, and relative job security, a combination that is challenging to find in the private sector, even in the best of times … In addition to these benefits, federal employees, contrary to popular belief, are paid relatively well.

One policy implication is that federal worker compensation would be a good place to look for budget savings to reduce the federal deficit. We could start with a two-year freeze on federal salaries to save about $20 billion. During a recession, private wages are not increasing, so why should federal wages?

Fusion Centers

Most people don’t care about government surveillance – just so long as they are not affected by it.  We want the police to be on lookout for trouble – so some surveillance is necessary for the work they do.  But how much?

After 9/11, state officials said they had difficulty “connecting all the dots.”  Fusion centers are supposed to remedy that problem.  Police departments around the country are creating databases (“fusion centers”) and the objective is to link them together so that the police can spot patterns of behavior so that crimes or terrorist attacks can be thwarted.

The goal seems sensible and worthwhile but as the details emerge on how fusion centers operate, the concept gets controversial fast.  Who will be monitored? What kind of information will be  collected?   And who decides when pieces of information should be discarded or entered into a massive database?  If false information about, say, YOU, goes into the database, will you ever learn about it?  Have an opportunity to erase it or correct it?

Fusion centers are springing up all over the country and they are coordinating the efforts of some 800,000 American law enforcement officers to collect information about anyone deemed suspicious. One problem is that terrorists are not of a monolithic character. Terrorists can be extremely religious or secular; they may be Arab, white, black or any other race; terrorists come from both rich and poor backgrounds; they come from the far right, the far left – and some are simply against society generally. And when criminals are added to the mix, the potential dragnet for this casual government surveillance potentially covers scores of people.

Behaviors that make someone eligible for government monitoring are quite broad. As noted by Bruce Fein in his testimony before Congress in April, citing a July 2008 ACLU report on fusion centers, such suspicious behaviors in one LAPD directive include “using binoculars,” “taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent aesthetic value,” “drawing diagrams,” and “taking notes,” among others.

Former vice-president Cheney might argue that the monitoring is not extensive enough.  He recently said (pdf): “When just a single clue goes unlearned … can bring on a catastrophe – it’s no time for splitting differences.  There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”  National security, it seems,  requires that we get everyone into the central database for scrutiny.  We can’t afford any ”gaps” in the surveillance matrix.

I will be moderating a Cato event about fusion centers on Thursday, June 11, at noon.  The panel will include attorney Bruce Fein, the ACLU’s Mike German (who co-authored the report linked above), and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief of the National Security Section in the Maryland Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

America’s Power Problem

Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions.

But why haven’t we done so?

In his new book, The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble contends that the vast military strength of the United States has induced policymakers in Washington to broaden the perception of the “national interest,” and ultimately to commit ourselves to the impossible task of maintaining global order.

Preble holds that the core national interest — preserving American security — is easily defined and largely immutable. In his view, military power is purely instrumental: if it advances U.S. security, then it is fulfilling its essential role.

Preble spoke at Cato about what we views as the proper role of the United States in the world.

The GOP Is Not Serious about Cutting Down Spending

A month ago, President Obama issued a list of proposed spending cuts that I dismissed as “unserious” due to the fact that they were trivial when compared to his proposed spending and debt increases.  Today, the House Republican leadership released a list of proposed spending cuts.

I’d love to say I’m impressed, but I can’t.

Both proposals indicate that neither side of the aisle grasps the severity of the country’s ugly fiscal situation, or at least has the guts to do anything concrete about it.

The GOP proposal claims savings of more than $375 billion over five years, the bulk of which ($317 billion) would come from holding non-defense discretionary spending increases to no more than inflation over the next five years.

First, it should be cut – period.  Second, non-defense discretionary spending only amounts to about 17% of all the money the federal government spends in a year, so singling out this pot of money misses the bigger picture.  At least, defense spending, which is almost entirely discretionary, should be included in any cap.  But it has become an article of faith in the Republican Party that reining in defense spending is tantamount to putting a white flag in the Statue of Liberty’s hand.

The second biggest chunk of savings would come from directing $45 billion in repaid TARP funds to deficit reduction instead of allowing the money to be used for further bailing out.  That’s a sound idea as far it goes, but I can’t help but point out that the signatories to the document, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, voted for the original $700 billion TARP bailout. Proposing to rescind the Treasury’s power to release the remaining funds, about $300 billion I believe, should have been included.

According to the proposal, the rest of the cuts and savings comes out to around $25 billion over five years.  Like the specific cuts in the president’s proposal, they’re all good cuts.  But the president detailed $17 billion in cuts for one year and I generously called it “measly.”  What am I to call the House Republican leadership specifying $5 billion a year in cuts?

Take for example, proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is likely to spend around $65 billion this year.  Having recently spent a couple months analyzing HUD’s past and present, I can state unequivocally that it’s one of the sorriest bureaucracies the world has ever seen.  Yet, the House Republican leadership comes up with only one proposed elimination: a $300,000 a year program that gives “$25,000 stipends for 12 students completing their doctoral dissertation on issues related to housing and urban development.”  The only other proposed cut to HUD would be $1.7 billion over five years to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.  This notoriously wasteful program is projected to spend over $8 billion this year alone.  Eliminate it!

The spending cuts the country needs must be substantial, serious, and put forward in the spirit of recognizing that the federal government’s role in our lives must be downsized.  Half-measures are not enough, and from the Republican House leadership, wholly insufficient for winning back the support of limited-government voters who have come to associate the GOP with runaway spending and debt.  For a more substantive guide to cutting federal spending, policymakers should start with Cato’s Handbook chapter on the subject.

New Media, New Repression: China Blocks Social Networking Sites

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre of students and other anti-authoritarian protests in Tiananmen square.

If you want background info, including causes and the wider political context, check Wikipedia.

You can also see stirring videos on Youtube.

There are incredible photos on Flickr.

And of course Twitter has a wealth of real-time information and thinking about the anniversary.  Just search using the hash tag #Tiananmen.

But for those 1.5 billion people trapped behind the Great Firewall of China, absolutely none of those links are accessible.  To mark the event that the government assures never happened, the Chinese government has blocked most social networking sites.

In 1989, when a nascent pro-democracy movement wanted to communicate its vitality and prepare to take on the state, meeting en masse was vital. But that made it fairly easy for the CCP to roll in and crush the dream of democracy.

Twenty years later, the Internet is the place where mass movements for liberty can take root. While the CCP is attempting to use the electronic equivalent of an armored division to prevent change, reform today is a question of when, not if.  Shutting down open dialogue will only slow the democratic transition to freedom, which the Chinese government cannot ultimately prevent.

The leadership of today’s Chinese government should allow that country’s citizens and journalists to communicate openly. The alternative is to suffer eternal loss of face as history records them occupying its wrong side.

Americans Want Global Warming Action Now

Dana Milbank has the evidence:

For the past few years, liberal activists have gathered in Washington each spring for the Take Back America conference….

But now that Obama has actually taken back America, the activists at this year’s gathering feel a bit like the dog that finally caught up with the car. Organizers changed the name from Take Back America to America’s Future Now, but that didn’t prevent a sharp decline in participation. …

Hickey estimates attendance dropped from 2,500 last year to 1,500 this year, and even that may overstate things. At yesterday morning’s four concurrent “issue briefings,” 585 chairs were set out. Only 213 of them were occupied, including just 15 for the session on global warming.