Archives: December, 2011

Border Apprehensions Down. Will Our Politicians Notice?

Apprehensions along America’s southwest border have plunged in the past decade. Although there have been plenty of stories about it this week, our politicians have yet to grasp this important fact.

From a peak in 2000, the annual number of arrests along our 2,000 mile border with Mexico has plunged by more than 75 percent. Apprehensions are considered a good although imperfect proxy for attempted border crossings. By any measure, the number of people trying to enter the United States illegally between ports of entry has dropped to its lowest level since comparable records began 40 years ago.

A few implications that are not being talked about enough by politicians of either party:

  • For those who demand that we must “get control of our borders first” before discussing real immigration reform, that excuse is more hollow than ever. Net migration from Mexico right now is “essentially zero,” according to Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. This is a political window of opportunity to change our immigration system.
  • Immigration reform should be seen as an essential step in reducing illegal traffic across the border. As I’ve noted before, when we have expanded legal immigration in the past, illegal immigration has dropped. The best way to control our border is to expand opportunities for workers from Latin America to enter our country legally through established ports of entry.
  • We are in no danger of being flooded by low-skilled immigrants. Yes, beefed up enforcement has played a role in the declining numbers entering illegally, but the economic downturn explains most of the drop off. The Great Recession hit illegal immigrants hard, especially in the construction industry. If the jobs are not available, fewer foreign-born workers come and more go home.
  • Conditions in Mexico are improving. Despite bad press about the drug war, staying home has become relatively more attractive for Mexican workers. Thanks to gradual economic reforms, including trade liberalization and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican economy has enjoyed stable if unspectacular growth. The middle class is growing and poverty is declining. That growth, in turn, has contributed to a plunge in the Mexican birthrate, to where today it has fallen to replacement level.

We should reform our immigration system now. When the U.S. economy recovers to more normal levels of job creation, we will need immigrant workers more than ever. We should be prepared to welcome them legally rather than wasting resources in a futile effort to “control the border” through enforcement only.

Senator Schumer’s Feeble Grasp of Fiscal History

I’m not a big fan of Senator Schumer of New York. As I’ve noted before, he’s a doctrinaire statist who wants the government to have control over just about every aspect of our lives.

But that describes a lot of people in Washington. I guess what also bothers me is his willingness to say anything, regardless of how divorced it is from reality, to advance his short-run political agenda (sort of a Democrat version of Karl Rove).

For example, here’s part of what the Empire State  Senator recently had to say about fiscal policy, as reported by a Washington Post columnist.

Schumer said, “…Republicans came in and said, `We can solve your problem by shrinking government’…We tried their theory…The American people resent government paralysis, but most of them would say that government is doing too little to help them, not too much.”

What’s remarkable about this statement is that it’s so inaccurate that we can’t even decipher what he means. I’ve come up with three possible interpretations of what he might have been trying to say, and they’re all wrong.

1. He’s referring to GOP actions this year. This interpretation might make partial sense because the House Republicans have made a few semi-serious efforts to shrink government, but how can Schumer say “we tried their theory” when every Republican initiative was blocked by the Senate and Obama?

The Ryan budget died of malign neglect since the Senate didn’t even bother to produce a budget, and Republican efforts on the 2011 spending levels and the debt limit also were stymied, resulting at best in kiss-your-sister deals.

2. He’s referring to GOP actions during the Bush Administration. This interpretation might make some sense because the GOP did control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, but does Schumer understand that “shrinking government” was not part of the Republican agenda during those years?

But don’t believe me. The numbers from the Historical Tables of the Budget unambiguously show that the federal budget almost doubled during the Bush years because of huge increases in domestic spending.

3. He’s referring to GOP actions during the 1990s. This interpretation actually does make sense because the burden of the public sector did shrink as a share of GDP during the Clinton years when Republicans controlled Congress, so it would be accurate to say “we tried their theory.”

But what was so bad about the era of spending restraint during the 1990s? The economy expanded and people were better off, in large part because, to quote Schumer, government was “doing too little to help them.”

Heck, the Clinton-GOP Congress years were so good that I even offered, during a debate on national TV, to go back to Clinton’s higher tax rates if it meant we also could undo all the reckless spending of the Bush-Obama years.

This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring about low marginal tax rates. It just means that I understand that the ultimate tax is the burden of the public sector. This video explains more, in case you’re wondering why I’d like to go back to the 1990s.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that it would be even better to combine Clinton’s spending levels with Reagan’s tax rates.

New Video: Ending the Global War on Drugs

In the new video below from Reason TV, leading critics of the global drug war provide some thoughts about why they oppose prohibition. The conservative and former Colombian Senator Enrique Gomez Hurtado blames the drug war for the high levels of violence and cruelty his country has experienced. India’s former drug czar and expert on Afghanistan, Romesh Battacharji,  says of current drug policy:  “You just can never win it…Ever since the war on drugs, everything has hit the fan.”

The video is based on last month’s Cato conference, “Ending the Global War on Drugs.” You may see videos of the talks here, including a video of former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Va. Gov. McDonnell (Sort of) Takes My Advice, Defers Creating ObamaCare Exchange

In June, I testified in Richmond before Virginia’s Joint Commission on Health Care that Virginia should refuse to create one of ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges”:

[ObamaCare’s] health insurance “Exchanges” are scheduled to become operational in 2014.  These new government bureaucracies would enforce the law’s regulations that will drive up health insurance premiums, and would distribute hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to private health insurance companies, thereby driving up the national debt…

Neither the Commonwealth nor the federal government has money to waste on new government agencies that might be repealed or overturned tomorrow…

At a minimum, Virginia should defer the question of creating an Exchange until the courts dispose of the constitutional challenges brought against this law.  Legal scholars expect the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on this law in the summer of 2012…If the Court voids the law, Virginia will be glad she waited.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has inexplicably been gung-ho to create an ObamaCare Exchange. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, however, McDonnell may be modulating his tune:

McDonnell said he does not want to create an exchange legislatively until after the court makes its decision on the mandate’s constitutionality. The court will hear arguments in the case in March and possibly rule in July, just after a federal deadline for states to seek grant money to set up exchanges.

“Any major expense prior to the court decision is irresponsible and a waste of money,” the governor said at a luncheon meeting with members of the Capitol press corps.

Unfortunately, McDonnell is still laboring under the misapprehension that creating her own Exchange will let Virginia retain a measure of control over her health insurance markets:

McDonnell said he hopes the Supreme Court will strike down the law’s individual mandate, rendering an exchange unnecessary, but he made clear he wants Virginia to operate the exchange if the law stands.

“If we have to do it, I clearly want to have a state-based exchange,” he said.

To read about why Virginia doesn’t “have to do it,” and why there is no defensible rationale whatsoever for an ObamaCare opponent such as McDonnell to create an Exchange, read my Missouri testimony.

To learn how McDonnell may end up saving ObamaCare from repeal by creating an Exchange, read this Wall Street Journal oped by Jonathan Adler and me.

Government Spending Transparency: ‘Needs Improvement’ Is Understatement

Back in September, I rated Congress on how well it is publishing information about its deliberations and decisions. “Needs Improvement” was the understated theme.

Now we’re looking at the government’s publication of data that reflects budgeting, appropriations, and spending. “Needs improvement” isn’t just understated in this area. It’s really, really understated.

On the budgeting, appropriations, and spending transparency report card I’m putting out today, B+ is the best grade—and it goes to just half of one subject area. There are 2.5 Cs, 3 Ds, and 4 incompletes. This area needs improvement.

What is transparency, anyway? In my briefing paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I wrote about the publication practices that support transparency. They are: authority, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. That means putting good data out from a consistent source in sensible ways, and, especially, structuring the data so that computers can interpret it.

You know what the World Wide Web is? It’s a whole bunch of structured data. If you want the kind of breakthrough in transparency for government data that the Web was for communications, you want the data structured right.

Our draft structure for data in this area is in our “Conceptual Data Model of the U.S. Federal Government Budgetary Process.” (HTML version, Word version)

Structured data doesn’t really exist yet in the area of budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The one bright spot is the president’s annual budget submission, which includes some information in a workable structure, but there is much room for improvement even there.

Because I’m so nice, I’ve given a lot of “incompletes” where I could have—and some say should have—given Fs. Believe it or not, there is NO federal government “organization chart” that is published in a way computers can use. That’s one of the building blocks of computerized oversight, and its absence is easily rectified.

When we return to these issues in the summer or fall of next year, and review more formally how Congress and the administration have done on transparency, I expect these things to be fixed. (Fear the blog post!)

In the meantime, here’s a run-down of the grades and why they were given. A Hill briefing today might be available online at the page for the event. (It’s somewhat symbolic that the room we have on Capitol Hill is ill-equipped for live-streaming, but we’re going to try.)

I’ve alternated in this post between “I” and “we” because I’ve gotten so much help on this. People from OMB Watch, the National Priorities Project, and the Sunlight Foundation have helped a great deal with this project, to name a few—and omit many others! The grades, the commentary, the errors, the misstatements, and omissions are all mine. And there are going to be plenty of gaps in this work. That’s why this is a blog post and not a formal Cato publication.


Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Budgeting, Appropriations, and Spending

How well can the Internet access data about the federal government’s budgeting, appropriating, and spending? In consultation with transparency experts, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, rated how Congress and the administration publish key spending-cycle data in terms of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.

These criteria envision a world where there is one authoritative source for each category of information. Unfortunately, what spending data there is appears in a lot of sources that have grown up haphazardly. There might even be some sources we don’t know about. Future grades will undoubtedly reflect improvements in what researchers, reporters, websites, and the public at large can see and use, aided by their computers.

Agencies: I

Federal agencies are the “agents” of Congress and the president. They carry out federal policy and spending decisions. Accordingly, one of the building blocks of data about spending is going to be a definitive list of the organizational units that do the spending.

Is there such a list? Yes! It’s Appendix C of OMB Circular A-11, “Listing of OMB Agency/Bureau and Treasury Codes.” But this list is a PDF document that is found on the Office of Management and Budget website.

Believe it or not, there is NO federal government “organization chart” that is published in a way amenable to computer processing!

There are distinct identifiers for agencies in both the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Either of these could be published as the executive branch’s definitive list of its agencies. This fruit is hanging so low that a gopher could snack on it without leaving its hole, but nobody seems to have thought of publishing data about the basic units of the executive branch online in a machine-discoverable and machine-readable format.

A pathological excess of generosity spurs us to give this category an “incomplete” rather than a straight F. We expect improvement in publication of this data, pronto.

Bureaus: I

The sub-units of agencies are bureaus, and the same situation applies to data about the offices where the work of agencies get divided up. Bureaus have identifiers. It’s just that nobody publishes a list of bureaus, their parent agencies, and other key information for the Internet-connected public to use in coordinating its oversight.

Again, an “incomplete” in this area will quickly convert to an F if this gap in data publication is not soon rectified.

Programs: I

The work of the government is parceled out for actual execution in programs. Like information about their parental units, the agencies and bureaus, data that identifies and distinguishes programs is not comprehensively published.

There is some information about programs available in usable forms. The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance website (www.cfda.gov) has useful aggregation of some information on programs, but the canonical guide to government programs, along with the bureaus and agencies that run them does not exist.

This is a little bit heavier a lift than agencies and bureaus—the number of programs exceeds the number of bureaus by something like an order of magnitude (much as the number of bureaus exceeds the number of agencies). And it might be that some programs have more than one agency/bureau parent. But today’s powerful computers can keep track of these things—they can count pretty high! And the government should figure out all the programs it has, keep that list up to date, and publish it for public consumption.

Until it does, the program category gets an “incomplete” and the threat of a future F. (Or maybe a D thanks to the CFDA.)

Projects: D-

Projects are where the rubber hits the road. These are the organizational vehicles the government uses to enter into contracts and create other obligations that deliver on government services.

Some project information gets published—we finally have an item that is not incomplete—but the publication is so bad that we give this area a low grade indeed.

Information about projects can be found. You can search for projects by name on USASpending.gov, and descriptions of projects appear in USASpending/FAADS downloads. (“FAADS” is the Federal Assistance Award Data System), but there is no canonical list of projects that we could find. There should be, and there should have been for a long time now.

The generosity and patience we showed with respect to agencies, budgets, and programs has run out. There’s more than nothing here, but programs get a D-.

Budget Documents — Congress: D / White House: B+

The president’s annual budget submission and the congressional budget resolutions are the planning documents that the president and Congress use to map the direction of government spending each year. These documents are published authoritatively, and they are consistently available, which is good. They are kind-of machine-discoverable, but they are not terribly machine-readable.

The appendices to the president’s budget are published in XML format, which vastly reduces the time it takes to work with the data in them. That’s really good. But the congressional budget resolutions have no similar organization, and there is low correspondence between the budget resolutions that Congress puts out and the budget the president puts out. You would think that a person—or better yet, a computer—should be able to lay these documents side by side for comparison, but you can’t.

For its use of XML, the White House gets a B+. Congress gets a flat D.

Budget Authority—Congress: C- / Executive Branch: D

“Budget authority” is a term of art for what probably should be called “spending authority.” It’s the power to spend money, created when Congress and the president pass a law containing such authority.

Proposed budget authority is pretty darn opaque. The bills in Congress that contain proposed budget authority are consistently published online—that’s good—but they don’t highlight budget authority in machine readable ways. No computer can figure out how much budget authority is out there in pending legislation.

Existing budget authority is pretty well documented in the Treasury Department’s FAST book (Federal Account Symbols and Titles). This handy resource lists Treasury accounts and the statutes and laws that provide their budget authority. The FAST book is not terrible, but the only form we’ve found it in is PDF. PDF is terrible.

Congress can do a lot better, but because some of the publication basics are there, we give it a C-. The administration gets a D for publishing the obscure FAST book in PDF.

Ideally, there would be a nice, neat connection from budget authority right down to every outlay of funds, and back up again from every outlay to its budget authority. These connections, published online in useful ways, would allow public oversight to blossom.

Warrants, Apportionments, and Allocations: I

After Congress and the president create budget authority, that authority gets divvied up to different agencies, bureaus, programs and projects. How well documented are these processes? Not well.

An appropriation warrant is an assignment of funds by the Treasury to a treasury account to serve a particular budget authority. It’s the indication that there is money in an account for an agency to obligate and then spend.

Where is warrant data? We can’t find it. Given Treasury’s thoroughness, it probably exists, but it’s just not out there for public consumption. We’ve again generously given this area an “incomplete.”

An apportionment is an instruction from the Office of Management and Budget to an agency about how much it may spend from a treasury account in service of given budget authority in a given period of time.

We haven’t seen any data about this, and we’re less sure that there is some. There should be. And we should get to see it. Incomplete.

An allocation is a similar division of budget authority by an agency into programs or projects. We don’t see any data on this either. And we should. Incomplete.

Step up, Executive Branch, or we’ll convert these incompletes to very low grades, indeed…

Obligations: C+

Obligations are the commitments to spend money into which government agencies enter. Things like contracts to buy pens, hiring of people to write with those pens, and much, much more.

There are several different data sources that reveal obligations: FAADS/FAADS+ and CFDA, for example. But their numbers don’t match up, and—unless you’re going to have each agency uniformly publish its own data—obligations shouldn’t be published in different places. It’s hard to consider either one authoritative (even if the law says they both are). FAADS+/FPDS (via USASpending.gov), CFDA, and FPDS (the Federal Procurement Data System) are online and stable, but they are potentially incomplete because not all agencies may report to them. The use of proprietary DUNS numbers also weakens them in terms of availability.

Just sorting through all the acronyms can get you down. Ask data experts to get into the quality of each data source, and you’ll be boggled by the questions regarding which agencies’ obligations are reported at which source, whether given sources dumb down the data by excluding small dollar amounts or by aggregating data about smaller agencies. Some sources are more timely than others. Etc. etc. etc.

All these issues frustrate transparency. Data about obligations is not clean, complete and well documented. The ideal is to have one source of obligation data that combines the strengths of all the existing sources and that includes every agency, bureau, program, and project. With a decent amount of data out there, though, useful for experts, this category gets a C+.

Parties: D+

Of course, you want to know where the money is going. That is what we’re calling the “parties” category. (“Parties” sounds kinda fun, don’t it?)

Right now, reporting on parties is dominated by the DUNS number. That’s the Data Universal Numbering System, which provides a unique identifier for each business entity. It was developed by Dun & Bradstreet in the 1960s. It’s very nice to have a distinct identifier for every entity doing business with the government, but it is not very nice to have the numbering system be a proprietary one.

Parties would grade well in terms of machine-readability, which is one of the most important measures of but because it scores so low on availability, its machine-readability is kind of moot. Until the government moves to an open identifier system for recipients of funds, it will get weak grades on publication of this essential data.

Outlays: C-

For a lot of folks, the big kahuna is knowing where the money goes: outlays. An outlay—literally, the laying out of funds—satisfies an obligation. It’s the movement of money from the U.S. Treasury to the outside world.

Outlay numbers are fairly well reported after the fact and in the aggregate. All you have to do is look at the appendices to the president’s budget to see how much money has been spent in the past.

But outlay data can be much, much more detailed and timely than that. Each outlay goes to a particular party. Each outlay is done on a particular project or program at the behest of a particular bureau and agency. And each outlay occurs because of a particular budget authority. Right now these details about outlays are nowhere to be found.

Now, there are plenty of people inside the government who are very familiar with the movement of taxpayer money in the government. They will be inclined to say, “it’s more complicated than that,” and it is! But it’s going to have to get quite a bit less complicated before these processes can be called transparent.

The time do de-complicate outlays is now. It’s another feat of generosity to give this area a C-. That’s simply because there is an authoritative source for aggregate past outlay data. As the grades other areas come up, outlay data that stays the same could go down. Waaaayyy down.

Obama’s Win-Win on Iraq

The end of the Iraq war is a rare win-win situation for President Obama. So far, he has played his hand skillfully. And it is a fair bet that he will continue to do so. Indeed, it might be one of the only policy areas that won’t cost him votes come next year.

This week’s events surrounding the end of the nearly nine-years long U.S. military mission in Mesopotamia reveal Obama’s acumen and good fortune. On Monday, Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Makiki punctuated the fact that the U.S. mission was finally ending. Today, the president will travel to Fort Bragg to thank the troops for their service in a war that he opposed at the outset.

There is irony in this, but one that Americans have managed for many years: unlike Vietnam, the American people have learned to love the troops while still hating the war. We don’t blame the military for the fact that the war has turned out to be a bloody, costly quagmire. And with good reason: the military didn’t claim that it would be easy or cheap. The soldiers knew better. With few exceptions, the cheerleaders for the war had no first-hand experience in warfare.

President Obama will likely emerge unscathed even if the worst-case scenarios transpire in Iraq. Unlike his worn-out claim that he inherited most of the country’s economic problems, “the other guy did it” excuse rings true when it comes to Iraq. The dwindling but vocal few who call for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq indefinitely cannot fairly accuse President Obama of implementing a reckless policy driven by the political calendar. He merely executed the plan according to the timeline developed by his predecessor.

Obama was not in a strong position to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement, given the Iraqi people’s overwhelming opposition to a continued U.S. presence in their country. But it wasn’t in his interest to do so. The American people want this war to end, and he wins credit, fairly or not, for following through on his promise to end it. And if Iraq descends into chaos, and civil war, or if Iran somehow manages to consolidate power over its restive neighbor, Obama can claim, justifiably, that these things wouldn’t have happened had people listened to him in 2002. But he doesn’t have to say it. Others will say it for him. Nearly every news story reporting on this week’s events have reminded viewers, listeners, and readers that the president opposed this war. That one fact translates to a relatively favorable perception of the president’s handling of foreign policy, generally.

Indeed, the president likely wins whenever the subject of Iraq arises. Excepting Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, the other GOP contenders are unable or unwilling to speak to the nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe the war to have been a mistake. Most of the president’s Republican challengers are reluctant to cross the neoconservative cheerleaders for the war who, inexplicably, still have great sway over aspiring chief executives. On the crucial question, “Was the war worth it?” Iraq war true believers expect a simple, one word answer: yes. They will not tolerate any apostasy, even though, for most Americans, the answer is a resounding no.

Any of his Republican challengers who cannot give that same answer can only hope that they won’t be asked the question. The more they say about Iraq, the less credible they become. And Barack Obama doesn’t have to say a thing.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Citizens! Do You Know the Source of Your Honey?

Some disturbing news indeed reached my inbox today (HT: David Boaz). Apparently honey is entering the United States under assumed identities. Chinese honey, once ubiquitous, was largely shut out of the American market through anti-dumping measures. So, this article from NPR.org alleges, it started to be sold through a third country (perhaps Indonesia, Thailand, or Malaysia) and was falsely labelled to evade the duties. (Apparently we know this because the honey can be tested for peculiar types of pollen.) The U.S. government wasn’t having any of that of course, and so they held up suspicious shipments through regulations, inspections, and documentary requirements.  So now the Chinese honey is allegedly being sold through India.

The domestic honey industry is now starting to worry that all of this nefarious, subversive honey-related activity will suppress the market for all types of honey, including their own, and are starting a fair trade-esque system called True Source Honey, which will trace the honey to a proper, ‘merican source. None of that Chinese muck.

Eric Wenger is president of True Source Honey. Soon, he’s going to Vietnam to help with the first audit of a Vietnamese honey exporter.

“The question we want to answer is: Does that exporter only purchase honey from beekeepers in that country?” he says.

The exporter will give the True Source auditor a list of the beekeepers from whom it buys honey. “Then the auditor will randomly select a number of those beekeepers, go out to that beekeeper’s apiary, and evaluate the capacity of that beekeeper to produce the volume that that exporter claimed was purchased and shipped,” says Wenger.

If everything checks out, that exporter is certified. But even after that, True Source will take samples from every shipment of honey and send those samples to a lab in Germany to see if the pollen matches the flowers that are actually blooming in Vietnam.

True Source wants to expand this system globally. One exporter in India is already certified.

Jill Clark, from Dutch Gold Honey, says these sorts of audited, verified supply chains are getting more common throughout the food business. In some cases, governments are requiring it.

“With all the food safety and food security issues, knowing where your food comes from right now is incredibly important,” she says.

Shouldn’t consumers be the ones to decide that? Removing the anti-dumping duties and discriminatory regulations will reduce the incentive for Chinese honey to be labelled falsely, and then we can decide for ourselves what is “incredibly important.” Or maybe we don’t care, and True Source will be a massive flop.

On a positive note, there are an encouraging number of libertarian comments to the article.