Archives: 08/2010

Is the Senate Broken?

Drawing on a New Yorker article by George Packer, Politico Arena today asks:

Is the Senate broken?
Should the upper chamber operate more like the House, where majority rules?

My response:

Some people believe that the Senate is “broken” when it doesn’t pass new government programs promptly and without extended debate. But we have two houses of Congress for a reason. The Founders expected the House to be subject to momentary passions, and they intended the Senate to be more cautious, prudent, and resistant to “rushing to judgment.” As George Washington supposedly said, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” When the Senate deliberates at length, when it resists the pressure of the White House, the House, and even public opinion, it isn’t “broken”; it is fulfilling its intended function.

Of course, it should be noted that when senators in the past two years have had doubts about the health care overhaul and energy taxes, they weren’t resisting public opinion; they were actually reflecting public opinion, while the House acted as a partisan body in defiance of polls.

Of course there are double standards in talking about filibusters and the like, as I pointed out back in 2005:

Both Democrats and Republicans have flip-flopped on the use of the filibuster because the once solidly Democratic Senate now looks to be firmly Republican.

Republicans who once extolled the virtues of divided power and the Senate’s role in slowing down the rush to judgment now demand an end to delays in approving President Bush’s judicial nominees. President Bush says the Democrats’ “obstructionist tactics are unprecedented, unfair, and unfaithful to the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to vote on judicial nominees.”

Democrats who now wax eloquent about a “rubber stamp of dictatorship” replacing “the rights to dissent, to unlimited debate and to freedom of speech” in the Senate not too long ago sought to eliminate the filibuster altogether.

Now Democrats are back in the majority, and both parties have tended to shift their view of the filibuster yet again. In the long run, though, establishmentarians like the New Yorker’s George Packer think that the purpose of government is to pass new laws, regulations, and programs; and they complain when the Senate or any other institution stands in the way of such putative progress. Those of us who prefer liberty, limited government, and federalism appreciate the constitutional and traditional mechanisms that slow down the rush to legislation.

Amtrak’s New Rail Cars

Amtrak has announced that it will spend $300 million on 130 new rail cars, including sleeper and dining cars, for its long-distance trains. The government company’s announcement came with the obligatory statement that the purchase will create 575 jobs. That’s more than $500,000 per job.

As a Cato essay on Amtrak discusses, all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes are money-losers. For example, the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, lost $462 per passenger in 2008. According to the Government Accountability Office, long-distance routes account for 15 percent of riders but 80 percent of financial losses.

Amenities like sleeping and dining services contribute to the red ink:

The demographic being served by these long-term routes does not demonstrate a strong need for taxpayer subsidies. Eighty percent of long-distance train riders use it for recreational and leisure trips, and riders tend to be retirees. Premium services like sleeper and dining cars contribute to operating losses for long-distance trains. These amenities are heavily subsidized, which means taxpayers—and not the pleasure-seeking retirees—are incurring the burden.

To maintain its unprofitable routes, Amtrak is dependent on federal subsidies, which are usually about $1.5 billion a year (Amtrak also recently received $1.3 billion in stimulus money). Amtrak has asked for $2.5 for the upcoming fiscal year, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed a 25 percent increase.

Amtrak’s press release brags: “Last fiscal year (FY 2009), the railroad carried 27.2 million passengers, making it the second-best year in the company’s history.” That sounds good until you realize that Amtrak accounts for only 0.1 percent of the nation’s passenger travel. Moreover, Amtrak projected in 1976 that its ridership would grow from 17.3 million in 1975 to 32.9 million by 1980.

With the nation’s debt spiraling out of control, taxpayers can no longer afford to subsidize Congress’s toy train. If intercity passenger rail makes economic sense, it could be profitably supported by its ridership and run as a private company. If not, then it makes no more sense for taxpayers to keep Amtrak operating than it would be for the federal government to subsidize stagecoaches.

State Debt Doubles

CNNMoney.com reports on how state governments are digging themselves deep into debt. The story points to Moody’s Investor Service data on “tax-supported” debt, which is bond debt that state taxpayers will ultimately have to pay back.

The article shows the large variations in government debt across the states, and notes that “not every state is ratcheting up its borrowing. Many states have strict laws governing their debt issuance. Some places, such as Nebraska and Wyoming, have virtually no debt.”

I’ve argued that all state governments ought to follow the no-debt approach to state finance. With good planning, capital expenditures can be financed “pay-as-you-go” or out of current revenues. Debt creates bad incentives for politicians and makes it harder for citizens to understand complex state budgets.

The CNNMoney.com story notes that state debt soared 10.3 percent in 2009 as the economy struggled. But I’ve noted that Federal Reserve data shows that debt has soared in good times and bad over the last decade. The Moody’s data tells the same story, as shown below.

State debt outstanding doubled from $230 billion to $460 billion in just nine years, 2000 to 2009.

What They Know Is Interesting—-But What Are You Going to Do About It?

The Wall Street Journal has stirred up a discussion of online privacy with its “What They Know” series of reports. These reports reveal again the existence and some workings of the information economy behind the Internet and World Wide Web. (All that content didn’t put itself there, y’know!)

The discussion centers around “tracking” of web users, particularly through the use of “cookies.” Cookies are little text files that web sites offer your browser when you visit. If your browser accepts the cookie, it will share the content of the text file back with that domain when you visit it a second time.

Often cookies have distinct strings of characters in them, so the site can recognize you. Sites use cookies to customize your experience. If you voted on a poll, for example, a cookie will cause the site to tell you how you voted. Cookies enable the “shopping cart” function in online stores.

Advertising networks use cookies to gather information about web surfers. Ads are embedded on the main sites people visit, just like the video above and the Amazon Kindle widget in the column on the right. They’re served by different servers than most of the content on the page. Embedded content acts as a sort of  ”third party” to the main transaction between web surfers and the sites they visit. Embedded content can offer cookies just like main sites do—they’re known as “third-party cookies.” 

A network that has ads on a lot of sites will recognize a browser (and by inference the person using it) when it goes to different web sites, enabling the ad network to get a sense of that person’s interests. Been on a site dealing with SUVs? You just might see an SUV ad as you continue to surf.

This is important to note: Most web sites and ad networks do not “sell” information about their users. In targeted online advertising, the business model is to sell space to advertisers—giving them access to people (“eyeballs”) based on their demographics and interests. It is not to sell individuals’ personal and contact info. Doing the latter would undercut the advertising business model and the profitability of the web sites carrying the advertising.

Some people don’t like this tracking. I think some feel it undignified to be a mere object of impersonal commerce (see Seger, Bob). Some worry that data about their interests will be used to discriminate wrongly against them, or to exclude them from information and opportunities they should enjoy. Excess customization of the web experience may stratify society, some believe. Tied to real identities, this data could fall into the hands of government and be used wrongly. These are all legitimate concerns, and I share some of them more, and some less, than others.

One I understand but dislike is the offense some people take at cookies for their “surreptitious” use. How many decades must cookies be integral to web browsing, and how many waves of public debate must their be about cookies before they lose their surreptitious cast? Cookies are just as surreptitious as photons and sound waves, which silently and invisibly carry data about you to anyone in the vicinity. We’d all be in a pretty tough spot without them.

Though cookies—and debate about their privacy consequences—have been around for a long time, many people don’t know even the basics I laid out above. They also don’t know that cookies are within the control of every web user.

As I testified to the Senate Commerce Committee last week, In the major browsers (Firefox and Internet Explorer), one must simply go to the “Tools” pull-down menu, select “Options,” then click on the “Privacy” tab to customize one’s cookie settings. In Firefox, one can decline to accept all third-party cookies, neutering the cookie-based data collection done by ad networks. In Internet Explorer, one can block all cookies, block all third-party cookies, or even choose to be prompted each time a cookie is offered.

Yes, new technologies make cookie control an imperfect protection against tracking, but that does not excuse consumers from the responsibility to exercise privacy self-help that will get at the bulk of the problem.

Some legislators, privacy advocates, and technologists want very badly to protect consumers, but much of what is called ”consumer protection” actually functions as an invitation for consumers to cede personal responsibility. People rise or fall to meet expectations, and consumer advocates who assume incompetence on the part of the public may have a hand in producing it, making consumers worse off. 

If a central authority such as Congress or the Federal Trade Commission were to decide for consumers how to deal with cookies, it would generalize wrongly about many, if not most, individuals’ interests, giving them the wrong mix of privacy and interactivity, for example. And it would leave consumers unprotected from threats beyond their jurisdiction (i.e. web tracking by sites outside the United States). Education is the hard way, and it is the only way, to get consumers’ privacy interests balanced with their other interests.

But perhaps this is a government vs. corporate passion play, with government as the privacy defender (… oh, nevermind). One article in the WSJ series has interacted with lasting anti-Microsoft sentiment to produce interpretations that business interests are working to undercut consumer privacy. Engineers working on a new version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser thought they might set certain defaults to protect privacy better, but they were overruled when the business segments at Microsoft learned of the plan. Privacy “sabotage,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it. And a Wired news story says Microsoft “crippled” online privacy protections.

But if the engineers’ plan had won the day, an equal opposite reaction would have resulted when Microsoft “sabotaged” web interactivity and the advertising business model, “crippling” consumer access to free content. The new version of Microsoft’s browser maintained the status quo in cookie functionality, as does Google’s Chrome browser and Firefox, a product of non-profit privacy “saboteur” the Mozilla Foundation. The “business attacks privacy” story doesn’t wash.

This is not to say that businesses don’t want personal information—they do, so they can provide maximal service to their customers. But they are struggling to figure out how to serve all dimensions of consumer interest including the internally inconsistent consumer demand for privacy along with free content, custom web experiences, convenience, and so on.

Only one thing is certain here: Nobody knows how this is supposed to come out. Cookies and other tracking technologies will create legitimate concerns that weigh against the benefits they provide. Browser defaults may converge on something more privacy protective. (Apple’s Safari browser rejects third-party cookies unless users tell it to do otherwise.) Browser plug-ins will augment consumers’ power to control cookies and other tracking technologies. Consumers will get better accustomed to the information economy, and they will choose more articulately how they fit into it. 

What matters is that the conversation should continue. If you’ve read this far, you’re better equipped to participate in it, and to take responsibility for your own privacy.

Do so.

Great Moments in Government-Run Healthcare

Somebody sent me this story from the Drudge Report and I can’t resist the temptation to share. What really astounds me is not that a Swedish man sewed up his own leg after waiting for a long time in a hospital. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if things like that happened in all nations. The really disturbing part of the story is that the hospital then reported the man to the police. A classic case of “blaming the victim.” The bureaucrats in Sweden’s government-run healthcare system obviously were not pleased that he called attention to their failure.

A 32-year-old took the needle into his hands when he tired of the wait at Sundsvall hospital in northern Sweden and sewed up the cut in his leg himself. The man was later reported to the police for his impromptu handiwork. “It took such a long time,” the man told the local Sundsvall Tidning daily. The man incurred the deep cut when he sliced his leg on the sharp edge of a kitchen stove while he was renovating at home. “I first went to the health clinic, but it was closed. So I rang the medical help line and they told me that it shouldn’t be closed, so I went to emergency and sat there,” the man named only as Jonas told the newspaper. After an hour-long wait in a treatment room, he lost patience and proceeded to sew up his own wound. “They had set out a needle and thread and so I decided to take the matter into my hands,” he said. But hospital staff were not as impressed by his initiative and have reported the man on suspicion of arbitrary conduct for having used hospital equipment without authorization.

U.S. Military Power: Preeminence for What Purpose?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question focuses on the recently released Hadley-Perry “alternative QDR.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of NationalJournal.com asks:

The U.S. military is already unaffordable – and yet it needs to be larger to sustain America’s global leadership, especially in the face of a rising China. That’s the bottom line from a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel, co-chaired by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary. The report, released July 29, is the independent panel’s assessment of and commentary on the Pentagon’s own Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year.

Frequent expert blog contributor Gordon Adams, among others, has already blasted the Hadley-Perry report for making the underlying assumption that the U.S. can and should continue to invest heavily in being a “global policeman.” Is Adams right that the Hadley-Perry report calls for an unaffordable answer to the wrong question? Or are the report’s authors correct when they argue that the U.S. must be the leading guarantor of global security? And if the U.S. must lead, has the Hadley-Perry panel laid out the right path to doing so?

My response:

Dan Goure says that U.S. military preeminence is not unaffordable. That is probably correct. Even though we spend in excess of $800 billion annually on national security (including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs) we could choose to spend as much, or more, for a while longer. We could choose to shift money out of other government programs; we could raise taxes; or we could continue to finance the whole thing on debt, and stick our children and grandchildren with the bill.

But what is the point? Why do Americans spend so much more on our military than does any other country, or any other combination of countries?

Goure and the Hadley-Perry commissioners who produced the alternate QDR argue that the purpose of American military power is to provide global public goods, to defend other countries so that they don’t have to defend themselves, and otherwise shape the international order to suit our ends. In other words, the same justifications offered for American military dominance since the end of the Cold War.

Most in Washington still embraces the notion that America is, and forever will be, the world’s indispensable nation. Some scholars, however, questioned the logic of hegemonic stability theory from the very beginning. A number continue to do so today. They advance arguments diametrically at odds with the primacist consensus. Trade routes need not be policed by a single dominant power; the international economy is complex and resilient. Supply disruptions are likely to be temporary, and the costs of mitigating their effects should be borne by those who stand to lose – or gain – the most. Islamic extremists are scary, but hardly comparable to the threat posed by a globe-straddling Soviet Union armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. It is frankly absurd that we spend more today to fight Osama bin Laden and his tiny band of murderous thugs than we spent to face down Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao. Many factors have contributed to the dramatic decline in the number of wars between nation-states; it is unrealistic to expect that a new spasm of global conflict would erupt if the United States were to modestly refocus its efforts, draw down its military power, and call on other countries to play a larger role in their own defense, and in the security of their respective regions.

But while there are credible alternatives to the United States serving in its current dual role as world policeman / armed social worker, the foreign policy establishment in Washington has no interest in exploring them. The people here have grown accustomed to living at the center of the earth, and indeed, of the universe. The tangible benefits of all this military spending flow disproportionately to this tiny corner of the United States while the schlubs in fly-over country pick up the tab.

In short, we shouldn’t have expected that a group of Washington insiders would seek to overturn the judgments of another group of Washington insiders. A genuinely independent assessment of U.S. military spending, and of the strategy the military is designed to implement, must come from other quarters.

Taking the Constitution Seriously

Today Politico Arena Asks:

Is Health Care Repeal Gaining Steam?

My Response:

It’s striking how POLITICO Arena contributors on the left like Professors Skocpol and Jost blithely dismiss the idea that the Constitution could actually limit what Congress may do in the area of “social welfare” – including such monstrosities as ObamaCare. It’s as if they had no conception, despite their years of schooling, of what the Constitution is all about. It’s not a document that authorizes the federal government to do whatever may be in “the public interest,” as conceived by those in power at any moment. It’s a carefully crafted plan for government that both grants and limits power, so that individuals may plan and live their own lives.

Judge Henry Hudson got it exactly right when he wrote: “While this case raises a host of complex constitutional issues, all seem to distill to the single question of whether or not Congress has the power to regulate – and tax – a citizen’s decision not to participate in interstate commerce.” The left may ridicule the suits that have been brought against ObamaCare by more than 20 states and others, but in doing so they ridicule nothing less than the American heritage of limited constitutional government. If ObamaCare revives that heritage, it will all have been worth it.