Archives: June, 2010

Unfounded Government Plans to Take Control of the Internet

Wired News reports on another bill proposing to create government authority to take over the Internet—this time, because of “cyberattacks.”

Most revealing is the part of the report exposing how Senate staff must fish around for reasons why the authority would be exercised, never mind to what effect:

In order for the President to declare such an emergency, there would have to be knowledge both of a massive network flaw — and information that someone was about to leverage that hole to do massive harm. For example, the recent “Aurora” hack to steal source code from Google, Adobe and other companies wouldn’t have qualified, one Senate staffer noted: “It’d have to be Aurora 2, plus the intel that country X is going to take us down using that vulnerability.”

A second staffer suggested that evidence of hackers looking to leverage something like the massive Conficker worm — which infected millions of machines and was seemingly poised in April 2009 to unleash something nefarious — might trigger the bill’s emergency provisions. “You could argue there’s some threat information built in there,” the staffer said.

These scenarios will never happen. And we wouldn’t want the government grabbing control of the Internet if they did.

The idea of government “taking over” the Internet for security purposes is equal parts misconceived and self-defeating. It’s a packet-switched network, meaning that it routes around the equivalent of damage that would be caused by anyone’s attempt to “control” it. The government could certainly degrade the Internet with a well-coordinated attack, of course.

And that’s the way to think about government controlling the Internet in some kind of emergency: It would be an attack on the country’s natural resilience.

In February, CNN broadcast a bogus reality TV show produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center called “cyber.shockwave.” A variety of technically incompetent government officials talked about pulling the plug on the Internet and cell phone networks in response to some emergency. Commentator D33PT00T captured the idiocy of this idea, Tweeting, “ok my phn doesn’t work & Internet doesn’t work – ths guys R planning 2 run arnd w/ bullhorns ‘all is well remain calm!’”

The Internet may have points of weakness, but it is a source of strength overall. A government take-over of the Internet in the event of emergency would be equivalent to an auto-immune reaction in which the government would attack the society. Proposals for the federal government to take control of the Internet under any circumstance are unfounded and dangerous.

R.I.P. Brian Bromberger

One of the treats of my cross-country travels debating various legal and policy issues is meeting people from many walks of life and learning their particular perspectives on issues about which we both care deeply.  One such fascinating person was Brian Bromberger, dean of Loyola University (New Orleans) Law School until his untimely death last week.

Dean Bromberger was 72 when he suffered a fatal heart attack, but I still say his passing was untimely because he was so full of life and vigor.  Born in Australia, Dean Bromberger had taught in many countries around the world and several U.S. law schools.  He is perhaps best known for leading Loyola through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath – organizing a temporary law school in Houston when New Orleans proved unworkable. 

I only met him a couple of times but he impressed me both with his charm and his keen intellect.  I still clearly recall my first meeting with him, fresh off my second-ever Federalist Society lecture when I was still new to Cato: he ushered me into his office with a welcoming grin, pointing to the “Shalom Y’all” tile on his desk.  (The fraternity of foreign-born Jews with Southern affinities isn’t too big, so it’s always nice to find a kindred spirit.)  I don’t recall exactly what we discussed, but I’m sure it was a combination of comparative law and how New Orleans was recovering from “the storm.”

Loyola is hosting a memorial service at 5:30, and then the funeral will be in Australia next week.  R.I.P.

Heckuva Job on the Auto Bailout, Rattie

Puffing out his chest in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Steven Rattner, former-head of President Obama’s auto task force and architect of GM’s and Chrysler’s restructurings, asks, rhetorically: “Isn’t it time to agree that the auto rescue has been a success?”

Rattner’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished”—based on one calendar quarter of mediocre financial results—is a galling display of arrogance and deception, and betrays a disturbing cluelessness about the broader costs and consequences of the government’s heavy-handed intervention.

Rattner’s verdict rests on the singular consideration that “a year after the government-sponsored bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, both patients are alive and progressing well toward recovery.” But that’s like hailing the stable medical condition of a drunk driver after an accident, while ignoring the injuries to the family in the vehicle he struck.

The impact of the auto intervention on its victims doesn’t factor into Rattner’s analysis.

Rattner’s claim of auto “rescue” success is the product of a straw-man set-up. The most compelling objections to the bailout were not rooted in the belief that the government couldn’t use its assumed power to help GM and Chrysler.  On the contrary, the most compelling objections were over concerns that the government would do just that.  It is the consequences of that intervention—the undermining of the rule of law, the confiscations, the politically-driven decisions, and the distortion of market signals—that animated the most serious objections.

Thus, any verdict on the outcome of the auto industry intervention must take into account, among other things, the billions of dollars in property confiscated from the auto companies’ debt-holders; the higher risk premium built into U.S. corporate debt, as a result; the costs of denying Ford and the other more successful auto producers the spoils of competition (including additional market share and access to the resources misallocated at GM and Chrysler); the costs of rewarding irresponsible actors, like the United Autoworkers union, by insulating them from the outcomes of what should have been an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the effects of GM’s nationalization on production, investment, and public policy decisions; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against market interventions that can adversely affect U.S. businesses competing abroad, and; the corrosive impact on America’s institutions of the illegal diversion of TARP funds under two presidential administrations.

In the Washington Post analysis that leads to his pronouncement of success, Rattner considers none of those costs.

Instead, citing GM’s positive first quarter 2010 financial results, higher prices, smaller inventories, and a reduction in the use of rebates and other sales incentives, Rattner attributes the company’s success to the efforts of his task force, which oversaw the establishment of a new board of directors and reduced GM’s North American operating costs by $8 billion.

Indeed it may tempting for Rattner to take credit for GM’s first quarterly profit in nearly three years, but the truth is that cost reductions and the appointment of a new board of directors would have happened under a normal Chapter 11 reorganization (without the task force) anyway.  Likewise, economic recovery would have increased demand for and prices of GM vehicles—even without the guiding wisdom of Rattner’s task force.

Despite claiming success, Rattner recognizes that making taxpayers whole for their $81 billion investment in the auto indutry would help sell his version of history.  He even hints that it may soon be in the cards.  But even under the extremely unlikely condition that taxpayers get all of their money back, there are still the more difficult to quantify short- and long-term economic and institutional costs of the intervention that should counsel against ever doing something like this again.

Robin Hood and the Tea Party Haters

What is it with modern American liberals and taxes? Apparently they don’t just see taxes as a necessary evil, they actually like ‘em; they think, as Gail Collins puts it in the New York Times, that in a better world “little kids would dream of growing up to be really big taxpayers.” But you really see liberals’ taxophilia coming out when you read the reviews of the new movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. If liberals don’t love taxes, they sure do hate tax protesters.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, writes in the Boston Globe that this Robin Hood is A big angry baby [who] fights back against taxes” and that the movie is “hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation.” You wonder what Professor Rotella teaches his students about America, a country whose fundamental ideology has been described as “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

At the Village Voice, Karina Longworth dismisses the movie as “a rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement” in which “Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about ‘liberty’ and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed.” Gotta love those scare quotes around “liberty.” Uptown at the New York Times, A. O. Scott is sadly disappointed that “this Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!” The movie, she laments, is “one big medieval tea party.”

Moving on down the East Coast establishment, again with the Tea Party hatin’ in Michael O’Sullivan’s Washington Post review:

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East – in this case, the Crusades – it’s the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who’s running the country into the ground.

Man, these liberals really don’t like Tea Parties, complaints about lost liberty, and Hollywood movies that don’t toe the ideological line. As Cathy Young notes at Reason:

Whatever one may think of Scott’s newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the “libertarian rebel” played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution….The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin’s chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs’ role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. [In other books and movies] Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

The reviewers are indeed tapping into a real theme of this Robin Hood, which is a prequel to the usual Robin Hood story; it imagines Robin’s life before he went into the forest. Marian tells the sheriff, “You have stripped our wealth to pay for foreign adventures.” (A version of the script can be found on Google Books and at Amazon, where Marian is called Marion.)  Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”

Dangerous sentiments indeed. You can see what horrifies the liberal reviewers. If this sort of talk catches on, we might become a country based on antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism and governed by a Constitution.

Feds Propose Forfeiture as Immigration Employer Sanction

As recent posts in this space indicate, advocates of individual liberty have a variety of views on the proper policy response to illegal immigration. Whatever the disagreements, I suspect there’s some degree of consensus that certain proposed remedies are entirely too Draconian. From the California Labor and Employment Law Blog:

The U.S. Attorneys Office in San Diego has recently criminally prosecuted a French bakery for allegedly engaging in an intentional pattern and practice of hiring unauthorized workers. As part of the indictment, the Government is seeking hefty monetary fines, prison time for the owner and management, and asset forfeiture of the entire business to the Government. While the Government does not have experience running a French bakery, they are getting very serious about enforcing I-9 regulations.

More details on the French Gourmet prosecution can be found at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Restaurant Hospitality.

When government began pushing for asset forfeiture powers, some imagined that the formidable power would remain mostly confined to use in, say, illegal drug or money laundering prosecutions. But that’s not how it has worked. And immigration is hardly the only area in which employers should be worried about the expanding bounds of criminalization. Bills pending in Congress would criminalize “misclassification” of employees – which commonly consists of disagreeing with the government or with labor unions as to whether particular employees should count as independent contractors not covered by overtime and similar federal labor laws. Are we far from the day when prosecutors will start proposing forfeitures against employers over such infractions?

Watch Me Debate the Constitutionality of Obamacare!

Two weeks ago I provided an update on the state of the lawsuits challenging Obamacare and mentioned that I’d be debating the law’s constitutionality at the University of Washington in Seattle.  This event brought my debate tour full circle, because it was UW Law School two months ago that couldn’t find anyone to speak to the serious constitutional defects in the so-called reform.

My debate, against constitutional law professor Stewart Jay, went very well: It was, I hope, both entertaining and enlightening.  Curiously, Prof. Jay insisted on repeating that my arguments boiled down to policy disagreements and “rhetorical flourishes.”  He also accused me of asking courts to make policy rather than defer to Congress’s constitutional powers.  This was all a bit rich coming from someone whose legal arguments focused on standing and ripeness – important in the cases at hand, but 150 people didn’t turn out to hear about technical doctrines – and whose main presentation centered on the need to reform a broken health care system. 

Indeed, Prof. Jay repeatedly criticized my unwillingness to tackle the issue of “spiraling premiums” – which I eventually addressed, though I had been under the impression that the debate concerned constitutional law, not how to reform the system or why reform is needed.  He also mischaracterized the state lawsuits as focusing on exaggerated claims about the cost of expanding Medicaid.  (When the law isn’t with you, argue the facts and when the facts aren’t with you, argue the law – and if both are against you, I guess just be argumentative… )

But don’t take my word for it, watch the whole thing here.  Many thanks to the UW chapters of Young Americans for Liberty (part of the Students for Liberty network), Young Democrats, College Republicans, and the Federalist Society – as well the law school itself – for organizing and sponsoring the event.

Political Science and Washington D.C.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on political science and journalism.  It cites the Monkey Cage blog as an example and explains:

[P]erhaps The Monkey Cage’s greatest influence has been in fostering a nascent poli-sci blogosphere, and in making the field’s insights accessible to a small but influential set of journalists and other commentators who have the inclination—and the opportunity—to approach politics from a different perspective.

That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes… [C]onsider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.

These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting? (emphasis mine)

Political science can, at its worst, be hopelessly abstruse, cliquish, and regressive.  But at its best it can illuminate our thinking about issues, up to and including raising the possibility that certain things may be unknowable (at least by a journalist’s or policymaker’s deadline), or that things may be structurally determined.  As the snip above suggests, journalists, for understandable reasons, tend to privilege what you could call “agent-based” explanations for phenomena.  They tell Americans that the president’s poll numbers are rising or falling on the basis of some speech he gave (or didn’t give), or that some particular point of a political campaign determined the outcome.  Turn on a cable news program and you see this sort of uninformed and unfalsifiable popping off all the time.  In most cases, those claims, and even those sorts of claims, are completely wrong, as political scientists know.  On the other hand, journalists’ incentives do not lead them to highlight the latest political science research or write articles that could be headlined “Economic Conditions Set to Determine Another Election.”  People like stories, so that’s what journalists give them.

Question: What political science articles should journalists and policymakers be forced to read–and comprehend–before writing about/making policy on their particular issue area?

For foreign policy types, two articles come immediately to mind (although one was published in an econ journal):

Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser, “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” Review of Economics and Statistics 48, no. 3 (August 1966): 266-279.

Some suppose that the apparent disproportion in the support for international undertakings is due largely to an alleged American moral superiority, and that the poverty of international organizations is due to a want of responsibility on the part of some other nations. But before resorting to any such explanations, it would seem necessary to ask whether the different sized contributions of different countries could be explained in terms of their national interests. Why would it be in the interest of some countries to contribute a larger proportion of their total resources to group undertakings than other countries? The European members of NATO are much nearer the front line than the United States, and they are less able to defend themselves alone.  Thus, it might be supposed that they would have an interest in devoting larger proportions of their resources to NATO than does the United States, rather than the smaller proportions that they actually contribute. And why do the NATO nations fail to provide the level of forces that they have themselves described as appropriate, i.e., in their common interest? These questions cannot be answered without developing a logical explanation of how much a nation acting in its national interest will contribute to an international organization….

Since the benefits of any action an individual takes to provide a public or organizational good also go to others, individuals acting independently do not have an incentive to provide optimal amounts of such goods. Indeed, when the group interested in a public good is very large, and the share of the total benefit that goes to any single individual is very small, usually no individual has an incentive voluntarily to purchase any of the good, which is why states exact taxes and labor unions demand compulsory membership. When - as in any organization representing a limited number of nation-states - the membership of an organization is relatively small, the individual members may have an incentive to make significant sacrifices to obtain the collective good, but they will tend to provide only suboptimal amounts of this good. There will also be a tendency for the “larger” members - those that place a higher absolute value on the public good - to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, as the model of alliances developed below will show.

And, to mount up on another of my hobbyhorses (although I partly disagree with the explanation in the article),

Stephen M. Walt, “The Relationship between Theory and Practice in International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 8 (June 2005): 23-48.

Abstract: Policy makers pay relatively little attention to the vast theoretical literature in IR, and many scholars seem uninterested in doing policy-relevant work. These tendencies are unfortunate because theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Many policy debates ultimately rest on competing theoretical visions, and relying on a false or flawed theory can lead to major foreign policy disasters. Theory remains essential for diagnosing events, explaining their causes, prescribing responses, and evaluating the impact of different policies. Unfortunately, the norms and incentives that currently dominate academia discourage many scholars from doing useful theoretical work in IR. The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.

What articles would you nominate in your field of interest?