Archives: 11/2010

Quick Link on the Tea Party and Ag Subsidies

I wrote last week about my concerns regarding the fiscal conservatism of tea party candidates when it comes to farm programs. Edward Lotterman, writing in the (Minnesota) Pioneer Press Online, asks the key question:

If you campaign on a platform of lower taxes, smaller government, no budget deficits and ending government redistribution of income to small interest groups, how on Earth can you vote for continued spending on federal commodity programs?

Read the whole thing here.

The Ghailani Verdict

You’ve probably heard that a jury found Al Qaeda bomber Ahmed Ghailani guilty on only one out of 286 charges associated with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

A predictable debate followed. Glenn Greenwald cited the outcome as proof that the system works, while Liz Cheney, Debra Burlingame and Bill Kristol described the trial as a reckless experiment. Thomas Joscelyn called the trial a miscarriage of justice.

The most insightful commentary I’ve seen is over at Lawfare. Benjamin Wittes and Robert Chesney summed things up pretty well: “Trial in federal court didn’t work out the way the Obama administration wanted, but it wasn’t a disaster–and we can’t honestly say it worked out worse than the military commission alternative would likely have done.”

I’ve disagreed with Wittes on lawfare issues before, but he and Chesney are right on this case: (1) the defendant will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail, possibly life; (2) it’s not certain that the military commissions would have allowed evidence obtained by coercion (Charlie Savage also made this point in his article for the New York Times), (3) the conspiracy conviction in civilian court is solid on appeal, but not necessarily so in a military commission (conspiracy is not a traditional law of war violation, and three sitting Supreme Court justices have questioned its application in that forum); (4) the forum of conviction is less ripe for attack in courts of law and public opinion.

That’s a good outcome.

Internet Censorship Bill Threatens Free Speech, Rule of Law

On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act. Its backers, including Hollywood and the recording industry, are hoping to rush the legislation through Congress during the current “lame duck” session. The legislation empowers the attorney general to draw up a list of Internet domain names he considers to be “dedicated to infringing activities,” and to obtain a variety of court orders designed to block access to these sites for American Internet users.

To understand the proposal, it helps to know a bit about the Domain Name System, or DNS, that is the focus of the bill. The DNS is the Internet’s directory service. Computers on the Internet are assigned (mostly) unique numbers like “72.32.118.3,” but these numbers are not convenient for human users to remember. So instead websites use domain names like “cato.org,” and our computers use the DNS system to automatically translates these names into their corresponding IP addresses. DNS is a distributed system; thousands of Internet Service Providers operate DNS servers for the use of their own customers.

Under COICA, when the attorney general accused a domain name of being “dedicated” to copyright infringement, the courts would issue orders not against the owners of the domain name (who may be overseas) but against domain-name registrars and the operators of DNS servers here in the United States. This means that thousands of systems administrators would be required to maintain a large and constantly-changing list of blacklisted domains. This is a significant and unfair administrative burden on private parties who have absolutely no connection to infringing activities.

The legislation falls far short of constitutional due process requirements. Legal injunctions would be issued upon the attorney general’s mere accusation of “infringing activities.” Not only would the owner of the domain name not have an opportunity to contest the allegations, he would not even have to be notified. And the parties who would receive notice under the legislation—DNS registrars and server administrators—will typically have no knowledge of or connection to the accused domain, which means they would have neither the knowledge or the motivation to dispute unreasonable orders.

This is especially problematic because we are talking about constitutionally-protected speech here. The Supreme Court has long held that prior restraints of speech are unconstitutional. The websites on the government’s blacklist may have a large amount of constitutionally-protected speech on them, in addition to allegedly-infringing material. Not only does COICA not require the government to prove its allegations before a domain name is blocked, it doesn’t require the government to ever prove them.

Earlier this year, my colleague Jim Harper praised Secretary Clinton’s speech making Internet freedom a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda. Secretary Clinton was right to lecture foreign governments about the evils of Internet censorship; her former colleagues in the US Senate should listen to her.

A Successful IPO Does Not a Justifiable Bailout Make

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of GM’s IPO today.  A common narrative in today’s media is that GM’s return to the stock market affirms the wisdom of the auto bailout.  Some tougher customers in the media insist on a higher threshold being met—that taxpayers get back the entirety of their $50 billion investment in GM—before declaring “mission accomplished.” And then there are the rabid partisans who—in their seething animosity toward the Obama administration—reach conclusions devoid of logic and rich only in conspiratorial-mindedness.  For example, yesterday I was contacted by a media outlet vetting this conclusion: “The IPO is evidence of the failure of the bailout because taxpayers were excluded from buying shares at the IPO price and, therefore, denied the opportunity to get their money back.”  Huh?

All of those analyses are wrong.  Let me dispense with the last one first, as it simply betrays a gross misunderstanding of how taxpayers are on the hook.  By divesting of GM (i.e., selling its shares), the government is beginning to make the taxpayer whole.  But just as there were no checks written directly from taxpayers to GM, there will be no checks written to taxpayers, as the Treasury liquidates the public’s share of GM.  Whether main street Americans could participate in the IPO has nothing to do with making the taxpayer whole.  And, by the way, IPOs typically limit sales of shares at the initial price to a chosen few.  So let’s just shelve the canned indignation on this claim.  It’s a distraction.

Here’s the real issue.  Today’s IPO is nothing more than testament to the fact that the government threw GM a lifeline, enabling the company to expunge most of its debts and firm up its balance sheet on terms more favorable than a normal bankruptcy process would have yielded.  That enabled GM to partake of the cyclically growing U.S. auto market in 2010 and turn a profit through the first three quarters.  So what?  Did anyone really think that a chosen company so coddled and insulated from market realities couldn’t turn a short-run profit?  Yes, even GM, under those favorable conditions should have been expected to turn a profit this year.

But at what cost?  That answer—even the question—seems to be elusive in the public discussion of the IPO.  The cost was not only $50 billion—the amount diverted to GM in the first place.  Nor was it that $50 billion minus the proceeds raised in today’s IPO (and minus the proceeds raised later when the government divests entirely of GM – it will still hold 33% of GM after today).  In other words, making taxpayers whole does not absolve the Bush and Obama administration’s for the auto intervention.  Recouping the $50 billion only gets us partially out of the hole.  (And I’m not even sure who “us” includes because the costs are so far reaching.)

Yes, GM is making sales and accounting for market share, but only at the expense of the other automakers.  Had GM been forced to severely atrophy or liquidate, the other automakers would have had greater revenues, more market share, and probably higher profits).  They would have been able to attract GM’s best engineers and line workers.  They would have more money to invest in R&D and to lead the industry into the future.  Instead, by keeping GM in the mix, some of those industry resources remain misallocated in a company that the evolutionary market process would have made smaller or extinct. 

The auto industry wasn’t rescued with the GM bailout.  GM was “rescued.”  By rescuing GM, the government overrode market forces, and there are significant costs to assign for that.  Witness the stagnant economy with 9.6 percent unemployment.  Is it not plausible that businesses are sitting on their cash and not investing or hiring because of the fear inspired by the government interventions starting with the bank and auto bailouts?  It’s more than plausible.  The regime uncertainty that persists to this day was spawned by the GM bailout and other interventions.

What about the weakening of the rule of law?  Doesn’t the diversion of TARP funds by the Bush administration, in circumvention of congress’s wishes and in contravention of the language of the law, represent a cost?  How about the property right of preferred bondholders who were forced to take pennies on their investment dollars under the Obama bankruptcy plan?  Any costs there?  What about U.S. moral authority to dissuade other goverments from meddling in their markets or indulging industrial policy?  That may be costly to U.S. enterprises.  And with the government still holding a third of GM, its hard to swallow the idea that public interest will be the driver of policies affecting the auto industry.  And that suggests even more costs.

But don’t mistake this blog post for an anti-IPO rant.  I’m in favor of the IPO.  It couldn’t have happened sooner.  But I suspect the investment bankers, the administration, and the other members of GM’s Board of Directors reckoned that, with the hype over the new Chevy Volt and the recent newsleak of GM’s $43 billion in unorthodox tax deferrments on the balance sheet, now was the perfect time to go public.

Don’t Blame Ireland’s Mess on Low Corporate Tax Rates

Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector.

This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

NATO Countries Meet in Lisbon

The inherent vulnerabilities and shortcomings of an alliance created in 1949 to defeat an adversary that ceased to exist in 1989 will be on display for all to see tomorrow when President Obama and leaders of NATO meet in Lisbon. I predict that President Obama will try to put the best possible gloss on the alliance’s inability to resolve its internal differences over Afghanistan, and the leaders of the other NATO countries will surely do the same. But they can not obscure the fact that an alliance that was expanded on the premise that it was uniquely suited to deal with problems far outside of Europe has revealed itself to be all but irrelevant.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the NATO mission in Afghanistan, especially the new, new target date for the handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government some time in 2014, ignoring the fact that a number of the NATO countries that contributed troops to the mission will have already headed for the exits by then. A story in today’s Washington Post notes that Canada expects to pull out its 3,000 troops next year, and Germany will begin withdrawing in 2012.

Beyond the Afghan mission, it is to be expected that President Obama and the other heads of state will reaffirm the supposed central importance of NATO to transatlantic and, indeed, global security through a new “strategic concept.”

The reality is very different. The U.S. government chose to retain NATO after the end of the Cold War, in part to discourage the creation of an independent European military capability. The net effect of this short-sighted decision is clear: European military capabilities have atrophied, European military spending has stagnated or declined, and U.S. military personnel, and U.S. taxpayers, have been forced to bear a larger and larger share of the burdens of defending a continent eminently capable of defending itself.

It could be argued that the Europeans wouldn’t have much need for more military spending in the first place, even if Americans renounced the security guarantee under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. After all, who are they going to fight? The persistent conflicts that defined Europe for centuries have been replaced by economic interdependence and growing political integration. The notion of France going to war with Germany is about as absurd as Kentucky going to war with Tennessee. 

Regardless, Washington should not be let off the hook for its past failures to encourage European countries to do more for their own defense. Lacking such capabilities, a number of NATO countries have made a show of supporting U.S. policies, most notably in Afghanistan. But public support for such missions is weak, and elected leaders of democratic countries risk a return to private life if they consistently buck the wishes of their constituents.

NATO has become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end – security – that could command support on both sides of the Atlantic, and unpopular one, at that. Germans aren’t willing to die in Afghanistan to prove that NATO is still relevant. Though the concept has fallen into disfavor thanks to the Bush administration’s shenanigans in the run-up to the war in Iraq, a “coalition of the willing” is a lot more useful than a “coalition of the reticent and feckless.”

Does Risk Management Counsel in Favor of a Biometric Traveler Identity System?

Writing on Reason’s Hit & Run blog, Robert Poole argues that the Transportation Security Administration should use a risk-based approach to security. As I noted in my recent “’Strip-or-Grope’ vs. Risk Management” post, the Department of Homeland Security often talks about risk but fails to actually do risk management. Poole and I agree—everyone agrees—that DHS should use risk management. They just don’t.

With the pleasure of remembering our excellent 2005 Reason debate, “Transportation Security Aggravation,” I must again differ with Poole’s prescription, however.

Poole says TSA should separate travelers into three basic groups (quoting at length):

  1. Trusted Travelers, who have passed a background check and are issued a biometric ID card that proves (when they arrive at the security checkpoint) that they are the person who was cleared. This group would include cockpit crews, anyone holding a government security clearance, anyone already a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Global Entry, Sentri, and Nexus, and anyone who applied and was accepted into a new Trusted Traveler program. These people would get to bypass regular security lanes  upon having their biometric card checked at the airport, subject only to random screening of a small fraction.
  2. High-risk travelers, either those about whom no information is known or who are flagged by the various Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence lists as warranting “Selectee” status. They would be the only ones facing body-scanners or pat-downs as mandatory, routine screening.
  3. Ordinary travelers—basically everyone else, who would go through metal detector and put carry-ons through 2-D X-ray machines. They would not have to remove shoes or jackets, and could travel with liquids. A small fraction of this group would be subject to random “Selectee”-type screening.

He believes, and has argued for years, that dividing ”good guys” from “bad guys” will effectively secure. It’s certainly intuitive. Poole’s a good guy. I’m a good guy. You’re a good guy (in a non-gender-specific sense).

Knowing who people are works for us in every day life: Because we can find people who borrow our stuff, for example—and because we know that we can be found—we husband our behavior and generally don’t steal things from each other, we, the decent people with a stake in society.

Poole’s thinking takes our common experience and scales it up to a national program. Capture people’s identities, link enough biography to those identities, and—voila!—we know who the good guys are and who are the (potential) bad.

But precisely what biographical information assures that a person is “good”? (The proposal is for government action: it would be a violation of due process to keep the criteria secret and an equal protection violation to unfairly divide good and bad.) How do we know a person hasn’t gone bad from the time that their goodness was established?

The attacker we face with air security measures is not among the decent cohort whose behavior is channeled by identification. That attacker’s path to mischief is nicely mapped out by Poole’s proposal: Get into the Trusted Traveler group, or find someone who can get in it. (It’s easy to know if you’re a part of it. They give you a card! You can also test the system to see if you’ve been designated “high-risk” or “ordinary.”)

With a Trusted Traveler positioned to do wrong, chances are good that he or she won’t be subjected to screening and can carry whatever dangerous articles onto a plane. The end result? Predictable gnashing of teeth and wailing about a “failure to connect the dots.”

All this is not to say that Poole’s plan should not be adopted. If he can convince an airline of its merits, and the airline can convince its shareholders, insurers, airports, and their customers, they should implement the program to their heart’s content. They should reap the economic gain, too, when they prove that they have found a way to better serve the public’s safety, convenience, privacy, and transportation needs.

It is the TSA that should not implement this program. Along with what are significant security defects, it is the creation of a program that the government might use to control access to other goods, services, and infrastructure throughout society. The TSA would migrate toward conditioning all travel on having a government-issued biometric identity card. Fundamentally, the government should not be making these decisions or operating airline security systems.

A very interesting paper surfaced by recent public attention to this issue predicts that annual highway deaths will increase (from an already significant number) by between 11 and 275 because of people’s avoidance of privacy-invasive airport procedures. But what caught my eye in it were the following numbers:

During the past decade, terrorist attacks, with respect to air travel in the United States, have occurred three times involving six aircraft. Four planes were hijacked on 9/11, the shoe bomber incident occurred in December 2001, and, most recently, the Christmas Day underwear bomber attempted an attack in 2009. In that same span of time, over 99 million planes took off and landed within the United States, carrying over 7 billion passengers.

Especially because 9/11’s ”commandeering” attack on air travel has been essentially foreclosed by hardened cockpit doors and passenger/crew awareness, these numbers suggest the smallness of the chance that somone can elude worldwide investigatory pressure, prepare an explosive and detonator that actually work, smuggle both through conventional security, and successfully use them to take down a plane. It hasn’t happened in nearly 100 million flights.

This is not an argument to “let up” on security or to stop searching for measures that will cost-effectively drive the chance of attacker success even closer to zero.  But more thorough risk management analysis than mine or Bob Poole’s would probably show that accepting the above risk is preferable to either delaying and invading the bodily privacy of travelers or creating a biometric identity and background-check system.