Archives: January, 2010

Protecting Property Rights

The Left tends to dismiss property rights as being for the rich and powerful.  But the rich and powerful usually can take care of themselves whether their rights are formally recognized or not.  It is the poor and middle class who most need legally enforceable property rights.

No where is that more clear than in cases of eminent domain.  The government rarely moves against the rich and powerful, seizing their lands to redistribute to the poor.  Most often the government takes the property of the poor and middle class to redistribute to the rich and influential.

So it is in New York City.  George Will describes one case now working its way through the courts:

On Aug. 27, 1776, British forces routed George Washington’s novice army in the Battle of Brooklyn, which was fought in fields and woods where today the battle of Prospect Heights is being fought. Americans’ liberty is again under assault, but this time by overbearing American governments.

The fight involves an especially egregious example of today’s eminent domain racket. The issue is a form of government theft that the Supreme Court encouraged with its worst decision of the past decade – one that probably will be radically revised in this one.

The Atlantic Yards site, where 10 subway lines and one railway line converge, is the center of the bustling Prospect Heights neighborhood of mostly small businesses and middle-class residences. Its energy and gentrification are reasons why 22 acres of this area – the World Trade Center site is only 16 acres – are coveted by Bruce Ratner, a politically connected developer collaborating with the avaricious city and state governments.

To seize the acres for Ratner’s use, government must claim that the area – which is desirable because it is vibrant – is “blighted.” The cognitive dissonance would embarrass Ratner and his collaborating politicians, had their cupidity not extinguished their sense of the absurd.

If the courts took the Constitution seriously the outcome of this case would not be in doubt.  But today the Constitution only occasionally affects the operations of modern American government.  Let’s hope that principle trumps politics when the case reaches New York’s top court.

Taking Terrorism Seriously

Today Politico Arena asks:

What’s in a name? Does it matter whether or not it’s called “war on terror? Is Obama’s approach any better or worse than Bush’s?

My response:

It matters whether or not it’s called “war on terror,” because war, whether declared or not, changes the legal regime – from law enforcement, aimed primarily at investigating and prosecuting domestic crimes after the fact, to protecting a people from acts of war before they happen by means unavailable outside of war.  In discharging his duty to protect the nation, President Obama has moved slowly, inconsistently, and often begrudgingly from the law-enforcement to the war paradigm.  Al-Qaeda has shown no such confusion or irresolution.  Just this morning, for example, the Washington Post reports that at its web site yesterday, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ”called for ‘every Muslim’ to kill ‘every cross-worshiper who works at the [British and American] embassies.’”

So how did Obama treat the Christmas Day bomber al-Qaeda sent us?  The way his mentor, Franklin Roosevelt, treated the German saboteurs who landed on our shores?  No – Abdulmutallab was “lawyered up,” read his Miranda rights, and encouraged to talk through his lawyer, like any common criminal.  Some say that approach – like calling him “the underwear bomber” – reduces a terrorist’s stature.  That’s fine for the playground (as if the terrorists were seeking simply to join the community of nations).  This is the real world.

And in the real world you don’t make excuses for why the dots weren’t connected, as Obama’s homeland security adviser, John O. Brennan, did yesterday on the talk shows.  You find out why they weren’t.  And a good place to start this morning is with Gordon Crovitz’s piece in the Wall Street Journal.   Rarely, he writes, does intelligence come to us “on such a silver platter.”  Abdulmutallab’s father, a respected banker, reported his concerns to the American Embassy not once but three times, twice in person. And the son had a U.S. visa, which could easily have been discovered.  He paid for his ticket in cash, and had no luggage.  But the criteria U.S. intelligence agencies use for determining when to put a suspected terrorist on a watch list or a no-fly list, Crovitz shows, are adapted from a landmark law-enforcement case, Terry v. Ohio, concerning local traffic stops:  “Mere guesses or inarticulate ‘hunches,’” the standard concludes, ”are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion.”  Is it any wonder that the dots were not connected.  They won’t be until we start taking this war seriously.

Bernanke Still Doesn’t Get It

Yesterday, at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a continued defense of the Fed’s monetary policies earlier this decade. Essentially he believes that monetary policy did not contribute to the housing bubble.  He also makes clear that he believes that the excessively loose policy stance of the Fed after the dot-com bubble burst was appropriate given the level of unemployment at that time.   Given that today’s unemployment level is even worse, Bernanke has offered us a clear indication that monetary policy will remain excessively loose for the foreseeable future, regardless of the Fed’s inability to actually create jobs.

Bernanke’s remarks also illustrate the contradictions in his own thinking.  At one point he comments that it would have been inappropriate for the Fed to response to increases in energy prices, because such prices were viewed as temporary; yet elsewhere he indicates that most market participants viewed house price increases as permanent, yet the Fed felt it was appropriate to ignore those, for what reason we do not know.  No where in his remarks does he address the impact of ignoring the single largest item behind consumer spending:  housing.

Perhaps the weakest link in Bernanke’s arguments is presenting the false choice of either monetary policy or mortgage underwriting standards.  How about accepting that both played a role.  Sadly when discussing underwriting standards, Bernanke continues to miss the most essential element: downpayment requirements.  Nowhere in his discussion of mortgage defaults does he seem to recognize the role of equity.

Monday Links

  • Michael Tanner says the difficult part of passing the health care bill has only just begun: “The bill must now go to a conference committee to resolve significant differences between the House and Senate versions. And history shows that agreement is far from guaranteed.”
  • Gene Healy on the new decade: “Yes, it was a rotten 10 years for America. But cheer up: Things aren’t as bad as they seem, and there’s a good chance they’ll get better.”
  • Will the market rise or fall? Richard Rahn: “The long-term outlook for the stock market is not good, and here is why. For the past 100 years, there has been an inverse relationship between changes in the size of government and the growth or decline in the stock market.”

Great Moments in Government Waste, the European Version

While American politicians are experts when it comes to squandering money, they may not be the world’s most profligate group of lawmakers. To be sure, American politicians sometimes give big piles of other people’s money to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but the politicians at the European Commission in Brussels engage in similar forms of corporate welfare with their Emissions Trading Scheme.

The overall burden of government is heavier in Europe, so that certainly suggests that there are greater opportunities to waste money, but what makes the European Commission special is that it is insulated from democratic accountability and there is no system of checks and balances. So even though the actual amount of money spent by Brussels is small compared to what is wasted by national governments in Europe, the outcomes are especially obscene. Here’s a story from the UK-based Daily Mail, reporting on a program (no joke) to fund activities such as basket weaving and siestas:

British taxpayers are helping to fund basket-weaving and slapstick acting workshops for young people across Europe. The projects, which include meetings about folk dancing and even a scheme to promote afternoon siestas, are part of an £800million EU programme to help people aged 13-30 ‘feel European’. …Another venture in Finland received thousands to support a coffee house which offered ‘everyone the chance to have a sleep for free’. It aimed to encourage afternoon naps to reduce stress. ‘Youth exchange participants’ also flocked to Macedonia last year for a meeting entitled Stories And Legends, receiving £18,000 to explore storytelling. …An EC spokesman said the projects were about exposing young people to other cultures and increasing their participation in  society. He added: ‘I don’t see anything wrong with basket-weaving or music-making if it encourages young people to meet other Europeans and learn a new skill from another part of Europe.’

Readers may be thinking this is no big deal. After all, American politicians fund pork projects all the time. But here’s the clincher. The UK’s Daily Telegraph reports that the European Commission is subsidizing a ski trip for…drum roll, please… the children of European politicians, and that the subsidies even go to households with income equivalent to about $175,000:

Taxpayers will heavily subsidise a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps for the children of MEPs and European Parliament officials in February. …The eight-day skiing trip for 80 children aged between eight and 17 is timed to begin over the weekend of St Valentine’s Day, providing some romantic time off from parenting for officials.  Costs, the holiday is priced at 920 euros (£822), are generously subsidised by the parliament’s budget. Households receive different levels of subsidy depending on their monthly income but even those on a income of over £108,000 get a discount. There is reduction of up to 52 per cent for officials earning £69,620 a year and an MEP, earning £86,000, is eligible for a subsidy of 45 per cent. …The children will enjoy full board in a three-star hotel in the beautiful village of Spiazzi. The trip includes “workshops” in a “multilingual environment” on the themes of “the mountain, its snow, its nature”. …The parliament’s spokesman declined to comment on the holiday.

Perhaps I’m not paying close enough attention, but I can’t think of anything the crowd in Washington has done that rivals this odious example of self-serving by lawmakers. Can anybody come up with an example that tops this?

The Difficulty With Finding Rare Events in Data

John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, made the rounds of the Sunday political shows this weekend. He’ll be reviewing the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 for the president. 

His appearance on ABC’s This Week program revealed his struggle with the limitations on data mining for counterterrorism purposes. His interviewer, Terry Moran, betrayed even less awareness of the challenge. Their conversation is revealing:

Moran: Who dropped the ball here? Where did the system fail?

Brennan: Well, first of all, there was no single piece of intelligence or “smoking gun,” if you will, that said that Mr. Abdulmutallab was going to carry out this attack against that aircraft. What we had, looking back on it now, were a number of streams of information. We had the information that came from his father, where he was concerned about his son going to Yemen, consorting with extremists, and that he was not going to go back.

We also, though, had other streams of information, coming from intelligence channels that were little snippets. We might have had a partial name, we might have had indication of a Nigerian, but there was nothing that brought it all together.

What we need to do as a government and as a system is to bring that information together so when a father comes in with information and we have intelligence, we can map that up so that we can stop individuals like Abdulmutallab from getting on a plane.

Moran: But that is exactly the conversation we had after 9/11, about connecting these disparate dots. You were one of the architects of the system put in place after that, the National Counterterrorism Center. That’s where the failure occured, right? The dots weren’t connected.

Brennan: Well, in fact, prior to 9/11, I think there was reluctance on the part of a lot of agencies and departments to share information. There is no evidence whatsoever that any agency or department was reluctant to share.

Moran: Including the NSA? Were the NSA intercepts shared with the National Counterterrorism Center?

Brennan: Absolutely. All the information was shared. Except that there are millions upon millions of bits of data that come in on a regular basis. What we need to do is make sure the system is robust enough that we can bring that information to the surface that really is a threat concern. We need to make the system stronger. That’s what the president is determined to do.

Moran: You see millions upon millions of bits of data that—Facebook has 350 million users who put out 3.5 billion pieces of content a week, and it’s always drawing connections. In the era of Google, why does [the] U.S. intelligence community not have the sophistication and power of Facebook?

Brennan: Well, in fact, we do have the sophistication and power of Facebook, and well beyond that. That’s why we were able to stop Mr. Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, [and] other individuals from carrying out attacks, because we were able to do that on a regular basis. In this one instance, the system didn’t work. There were some human errors. There were some lapses. We need to strengthen it.

In our paper, Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining, distinguished engineer and chief scientist with IBM’s Entity Analytic Solutions Group Jeff Jonas and I distinguished between what we called subject-based data analysis and pattern-based analysis.

Subject-based data analysis seeks to trace links from known individuals or things to others… . In pattern-based analysis, investigators use statistical probabilities to seek predicates in large data sets. This type of analysis seeks to find new knowledge, not from the investigative and deductive process of following specific leads, but from statistical, inductive processes. Because it is more characterized by prediction than by the traditional notion of suspicion, we refer to it as “predictive data mining.”

The “power” that Facebook has is largely subject-based. People connect themselves to other people and things in Facebook’s data through “friending,” posting of pictures, and other uses of the site. Given a reason to suspect someone, Facebook data could reveal some of his or her friends, compatriots, and communications.

That’s a lot compared to what existed in the recent past, but it’s nothing special, and its nothing like what Brennan wants from the data collection done by our intelligence services. He appears to want data analysis that can produce suspicion in the absence of good intelligence—without the “smoking gun” he says we lacked here.

Unfortunately, the dearth of patterns indicative of terrorism planning will deny success to that project. There isn’t a system “robust” enough to identify current attacks or attempts in data when we have seen examples of them only a few times before. Pattern-based data mining works when there are thousands and thousands of examples from which to build a model of what certain behavior looks like in data.

If Brennan causes the country to double down on data collection and pattern-based data mining, plan on having more conversations about failures to “connect the dots” in the future.

As George Will said on the same show, “When you have millions of dots, you cannot define as systemic failure—catastrophic failure—anything short of perfection. Our various intelligence agencies suggest 1,600 names a day to be put on the terrorist watch list. He is a known extremist, as the president said. There are millions of them out there. We can’t have perfection here.”

We’ll have far less than perfection—more like wasted intelligence efforts—if we rely on pattern-based or predictive data mining to generate suspicions about terrorism.

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

Is environmentalism a religion? At NPR it isyet again. I thought the latest story started off oddly – talking about “the uneasy relationship between religion and science” and saying that lefty novelist Margaret Atwood thinks that ”in the future we could see a religion that combines religion and science.” But it’s not the case that all religions have problems with all science, is it? So I was dubious about the premise of the story.

And then – what new kind of religion does Margaret Atwood envision? Well, you could write it yourself:

KLEFFEL: Armstrong sees the role of religion as a guiding force for ethical behavior. Margaret Atwood brings that notion to life in her newest novel, “The Year of the Flood.” It’s set in a dystopian near future where genetic engineering has ravaged much of the planet. The survivors have created a new religion.

Ms. ATWOOD: This group, which is called God’s Gardeners, has taken it possibly to an extreme that not everybody will be able to do. They live on rooftops in slums on which they have vegetable gardens. And they keep bees. And they are strictly vegetarian, unless you get really, really hungry, in which case you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work up. And they make everything out of recycled castoffs and junk. So they’re quite strict.

KLEFFEL: Atwood points out that the beginnings of her religion of the future have already appeared in the present.

Ms. ATWOOD: Indeed, we now have the Green Bible among us, which I did not know when I was writing this book, which has tasteful linen covers, ecologically correct paper, the green parts in green. Introduction by Archbishop Tutu. And a list at the end of useful things you can do to be a more worthy green person.

KLEFFEL: Atwood created a new pantheon of saints, including Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Dian Fossey, the murdered conservationist, as well as hymns, which have been brought to life by Orville Stoeber.

(Soundbite of song, “Today We Praise Our St. Dian”)

Mr. ORVILLE STOEBER (Singer): (Singing) Today we praise our Saint Dian, whose blood for bounteous life was spilled. Although she interposed her faith, one species more was killed.

Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday.” Atwood is filling it out with saints and hymns.