Archives: December, 2011

Four More Things Washington Shouldn’t Do

Today AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond—two folks who don’t always see eye to eye—have a New York Times op-ed that decries federal micromanagement in education, then lays out four things they think Washington should do.

If only they’d stopped at lamenting micromanagement.

Let’s take their four should-do’s in order:

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually….To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending…

This sounds great, but the key is in the doing, and there is precious little evidence Washington can force real transparency. NCLB is exhibit A: Yes, the law required states to break out data for all students and numerous subgroups, but the underlying information was essentially a lie, with states setting very low performance thresholds and calling it “proficiency.” And despite what many NCLB supporters will tell you, when you break down NAEP data—as I have done—there is little support for the notion that traditionally underperforming groups, or anyone else, have done better with NCLB than without it.

How about requiring common standards, both for academics and spending?

Even if you started with excellent, challenging academic standards, they would quickly be gutted at the behest of teacher unions, administrator associations, and probably even parents if many kids and schools didn’t meet them and were punished as a result. We’ve seen it many times, and there’s nothing about being federal that inoculates government against concentrated benefits and diffuse costs; the people most directly effected by a policy having the greatest political power over it. And financial data? As Adam Schaeffer has found, there are countless ways to hide the truth about district finances, and there’s little reason to believe that Washington will be either willing or able to sustainably force clarity.

One last thing: Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to demand “transparency”? Nowhere.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected.  No Child Left Behind required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations…were doing.  Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979.

Here there’s a slight connection to the Constitution: under the Fourteenth Amendment Washington has the duty to ensure that states and districts do not discriminate. But the presumption underlying what Darling-Hammond and Hess argue—that test data can reveal discrimination—is dubious. Can and should disparities in group scores really be laid exclusively at the feet of schools, districts, and states? Aren’t myriad factors involved in academic outcomes, many of which are outside the control of government?

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions. When it comes to brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring, federal financing for reliable research is essential.

We hear this one a lot, and in theory it makes some sense: people won’t risk their money on research that has no discernable payoff. The problem is few people ever contemplate the full cost of government funding “basic” research, or the unintended consequences.

The main concern is that putting money into things with no discernable payoff might yield just that—no payoff. So we hear about successes—government got us to the moon!—but rarely about how much has been lost in failed efforts. People don’t shy away from funding basic research just because they’re shortsighted. It’s also because they factor in risk.

Then there’s this: while we would like to think that all scientists are superhumanly selfless, they are not. They are as self-interested as the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why Austan Goolsbee—yes, Obama administration Austan Goolsbee—found in 1998 that much government R&D funding translated not into more breakthroughs, but higher wages for researchers.

What about the presumption that private markets wouldn’t put money into “brain science” or new tutoring techniques? Highly dubious. Education companies would have strong incentives to invest in research that could make them more efficient and effective because that would increase their profit margins.  The problem is, it is almost impossible to run for-profit schools in the United States, which can’t meaningfully compete against “free” government schools. In Chile, however, we see burgeoning evidence that profit can lead to greater scale—which is crucial for research—and better outcomes.

Of course, there’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing the feds to finance research.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.

Again, sounds good, but as Hess and Darling-Hammond themselves admit:

The Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.

It’s easy to say that Washington should enable district and union leaders to ignore political concerns, but federal policy is as much government policy as state and local, and government at all levels is a creature of politics. Government and politics cannot be separated, and to expect one governmental level to be above politics while the others are below it is, to say the least, extremely optimistic. And again, there’s no constitutional authority to issue education grants.

Darling-Hammond and Hess are right that Washington has meddled far too much in education. They are on thin ice in asserting that different meddling will work much better.

The Security Theater Cycle

“What we obtain too cheap,” Thomas Paine famously wrote, “we esteem too lightly”—and it turns out that the converse holds true as well. It’s a well known and robustly confirmed finding of social psychology that people tend to ascribe greater value to things they had to pay a high cost to obtain. So, for instance, people who must endure some form of embarrassing or uncomfortable hazing process or initiation rite to join a group will report valuing their participation in that group much more highly than those admitted without any such requirement—which is one reason such rituals are all but ubiquitous in human societies as a way of creating commitment. Studies suggest that people are more likely to read automobile reviews after purchasing a new car than before—suggesting that people are sometimes less concerned with spending money in the most judicious fashion than with convincing themselves, after the fact, that they have done so. More morbidly, relatives of soldiers killed in action sometimes become much more fervent supporters of the war that cost them a loved one—because the thought that such a grave loss served no good purpose is too much to stomach.

I suspect that this phenomenon may help explain the dispiriting state of affairs described by an airline industry insider in an important Wired piece on airport security. The short version: we’ve spent some $56 billion on “enhancing” airport security over the past decade, with almost no actual security enhancement to show for it. We’re spending huge amounts of money and effort on burdensome passenger screening that doesn’t seem very effective, while neglecting other, far more vulnerable attack surfaces. It is, when you think about it, a somewhat strange priority given the abundance of highly vulnerable domestic targets. Reinforced cockpit doors and changed passenger behavior pretty much made a repeat of a 9/11-style suicide hijacking of a domestic flight infeasible—at negligible economic and privacy cost—long before we started installing Total Recall style naked-scanners, which makes explosives the real remaining risk. Yet the notable bombing attempts by passengers we’ve seen since 9/11 have (a) originated outside the United States, and (b) been foiled by alert passengers after the aspiring bomber slipped through the originating country’s formal screening process.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising: when a terror group has already managed to get an operative into the United States, a domestic flight (that can’t be turned into a missile) would be one of the stupider, riskier targets to select, given the enormous array of much softer target options that would be available at that point, even assuming pre-9/11 airport security protocols. As far as I’m aware, the last time a passenger successfully detonated a bomb on a U.S. domestic flight was in 1962. This presents something of a puzzle: Why have we focused so disproportionately on this specific attack vector, at such disproportionate cost, when the terrorists themselves have not? Why haven’t we reallocated scarce resources to security measures (such as better screening of airline employees) that would provide greater security benefit at the margins? One possibility is that, having accustomed ourselves to submitting to the hassle and indignity of ever more aggressive passenger screening, we become more disposed to believe that these measures are necessary.

It’s become commonplace to refer to many aspects of airport screening—the removal of shoes, the transparent plastic baggies for your small allotment of shampoo—as “security theater.” Security guru Bruce Schneier coined the term to refer to security measures whose ritualistic purpose is to make passengers feel safer, even though they do almost nothing to actually increase safety. But on reflection, this seems wrong. It probably holds true in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile attack or disaster. Once the initial heightened fear subsides, however, these visible and elaborate security measures probably do more to increase our perception of risk than to assuage our fears. It is, after all, something of a cliche that hyperprotective parents tend to end up raising children who see the world as a more dangerous place. Overreacting to childhood illnesses is one reliable way of producing adult hypochondriacs down the road.

Security theater, then, isn’t only—or even primarily—about making us feel safer. It’s about making us feel we wouldn’t be safe without it. The more we submit to intrusive monitoring, the more convinced we become that the intrusions are an absolute necessity. To think otherwise is to face the demeaning possibility that we have been stripped, probed, and made to jump through hoops all this time for no good reason at all. The longer we pay the costs—in time, privacy, and dignity no less than tax dollars—the more convinced we become that we must be buying something worth the price. Hence, the Security Theater Cycle: the longer the ritual persists, the more normal it comes to seem, the more it serves as psychological proof of its own necessity.

Looking for Serious Program Terminations

The House passed a bill last week eliminating the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which the Tax Foundation calls a “voluntary tax that stirs little enthusiasm.” It would also save a whopping $14 million by eliminating the Election Action Committee and transferring certain functions to other federal agencies.

The Republican-sponsored bill passed on a straight party-line vote with the exception of Rep. Walter Jones’ (R-NC) no vote. Eliminating the fund would result in the transfer of $200 million to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction. From a fiscal standpoint, $200 million in deficit reduction isn’t even worthy of a yawn. And based on press reports, floor debate centered on whether Republicans were really just trying to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Seriously, didn’t the GOP leadership have anything more substantial to bring to the floor?

I went looking for bills introduced in the House that would eliminate programs. The conservative Republican Study Committee’s Sunset Caucus has a list of bills sponsored by their members that would cut spending (see here). Although there are some worthy bills that the GOP leadership ought to at least get to the floor, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the offerings.

One that did look particularly good is a bill from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) that would “eliminate ineffective and unnecessary federal education programs.” I’d say that describes the entire Department of Education. However, as soon as I saw the bill’s title – The Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act – I immediately knew that it would be a joke. Sure enough, the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the bill shows that I was, unfortunately, correct:

H.R. 1891 would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education act of 1965 to eliminate more than 40 discretionary grant programs. For 2011, the Department of Education allocated $413 million in funding from amounts appropriated in the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (P.L. 112-10) to programs that would be eliminated by H.R. 1891. Under current law, however, the funds allocated to those programs may be used for other grant programs that would not be eliminated by the bill.

Because annual appropriations to the Department of Education can be used for other programs, enacting the bill would not have a significant effect on spending from the appropriation provided for 2011. Furthermore, the authorizations for all of the programs specified in the bill have expired, so CBO estimates the bill would have no impact on such authorization levels. However, savings would accrue – as compared to 2011 appropriations levels – if the total amounts provided in 2012 and subsequent years are lower than the current-year funding for the department.

Note to Duncan Hunter: Why bother?

ObamaCare’s Preventive-Care Subsidies: Neither Free nor Cost-Effective

Matt Yglesias criticizes my comment in today’s USA Today when he writes, “making preventive health care free to the patient is…very cost-effective.”

Except it isn’t “free” to the patient.

And it isn’t cost-effective. The evidence strongly suggests we would “buy” as much health if we just waited for people to get sick and treated them then.

A Cybersecurity Exception to Wiretap Laws?

It’s gotten surprisingly little media attention thus far, but late last week the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence approved a bill to facilitate sharing and pooling of “cyber threat information” between private companies and government intelligence agencies—in particular, the übergeeks at the National Security Agency. It’s actually not a bad idea in principle. But the original draft was so broad that that the White House felt compelled to express concerns about the lack of privacy safeguards—which should give you pause, considering how seamlessly President Obama has shifted from thundering against the Patriot Act to quietly embracing the ongoing kudzu growth of our surveillance state.  A few encouraging tweaks were hastily added before the committee approved it, but the bill’s current incarnation still punches an enormous hole in the wiretapping laws that have, for decades, been a primary guarantor of our electronic privacy.

First, a bit of context. Whenever you send an e-mail, start an IM chat, place a VoIP call, visit a web page, or download a file, your traffic passes through many intermediary networks, starting with your own broadband or wireless provider.  While savvy users will protect their sensitive communications with encryption, our expectation of privacy when we use the Internet is also safeguarded by federal law, which generally prohibits network owners providing transit services to the general public from intercepting, using, or disclosing the contents of other people’s communications in any way beyond what’s needed to get the traffic from sender to recipient in the ordinary course of business. There are exceptions, of course: for law enforcement monitoring subject to a warrant, for emergencies, for consensual interceptions, and for monitoring that’s necessary to the protection of a provider’s own network. But the presumption against interception is strong and typically hard to overcome. (Non-public networks, like a corporation’s private intranet, are another story, of course.)  Communications metadata—the information about who is talking to whom, and by what route—is less stringently regulated, but carriers are still barred from sharing that information with the government absent some form of legal process. The motivation for all of this is the understanding that heavily regulated carriers, which also often compete for lucrative government contracts, would be subject to government pressure to “voluntarily” share their customers’ data (especially if the sharing could be done secretly).  Thus, the law ensures that the government will have to observe the niceties of judicial process before digging through citizens’ private communications, rather than relying on the “informal cooperation” of intermediaries.

This generally salutary arrangement does, however, create some difficulties in the cybersecurity context. Carriers and cybersecurity providers who have visibility on multiple private networks will often be in an optimal position to detect a wide array of attack patterns, involving both metadata (where are apparent attacks coming from? what timing patterns do they exhibit) and contents (what characteristic “signatures” indicate the presence of viruses, malware, or mass phishing emails).  This is information it’s highly valuable to have shared among providers—and, yes, the government too—and which generally doesn’t implicate the kinds of privacy interests wiretap law is supposed to protect. But legislators (or rather, the staffers who actually draft these bills) are generally keen to craft “tech neutral” laws that aren’t bound too tightly to current technologies and vulnerabilities, and therefore won’t be obsolete in the face of new tech or new threats. Unfortunately, this often entails erring on the side of breadth, which in this case means creating a massive loophole to remove a minor obstruction—the legislative equivalent of blowing your nose with C-4.

The bill provides that, “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” a company that provides cybersecurity services for its own networks or others may use “cybersecurity systems” to acquire “cyber threat information,” and share such information with any other entity, including the government. (One of the amendments introduced last week stipulates that the government may use and share that information only when one “significant purpose” of such use is the protection of national security or cybersecurity.)  The crucial question, of course, is what counts as “cyber threat information.” That term is defined to encompass:

information directly pertaining to a vulnerability of, or threat to a system or network of a government or private entity, including information pertaining to the protection of a system or network from—

(A) efforts to degrade, disrupt, or destroy such system or network; or

(B) theft or misappropriation of private or government information, intellectual property, or personally identifiable information.

The intention here is to cover the sort of information I talked about earlier—intrusion patterns and malware fingerprints.  On a literal reading, though, it might also include Julian Assange’s personal IM conversations (assuming he ever had an unencrypted one), or e-mails between security researchers.  Moreover, one important purpose of this information sharing is to be able to distinguish malicious from benign traffic—which may mean combing through a big chunk of traffic logs surrounding a suspected or confirmed penetration attempt (and comparing those logs to others) in order to extract the hostile “signal” from the background noise. That makes it extremely likely that a substantial amount of wholly innocent, and potentially sensitive, information about ordinary Americans’ Internet activities will end up in the sharing pool. Many attacks will appear to originate from computers conscripted into malicious botnets by malware, unbeknownst to owners whose legitimate personal traffic could easily be swept in and shared as “cyber threat information” as well. The current proposal doesn’t require minimization or anonymization of personal information unless the companies sharing the information impose such conditions themselves. Finally, “cybersecurity systems” is sufficiently vaguely defined that one could even imagine a sysadmin with a vigilante streak reading it to include aggressive countermeasures, like spyware targeting suspected attackers. After all, “notwithstanding any other provision of law” includes provisions of (say) the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would place such tactics out of bounds.

Intelligence agencies are also  empowered to share classified cyberintelligence with designated companies—and heaven help the firm that’s starved of that security information while their competitors have access to it. Another of the amendments added last week expressly bars conditioning such intelligence sharing on any particular company’s level of “voluntary” cooperation, and clarifies that the intelligence companies may not “task” private companies with obtaining specific types of information for them. Which is nice, but seems awfully hard to enforce in practice.  What we’ve already seen, unfortunately, is that cozy long term collaborative relationships between carriers and intelligence agencies are breeding grounds for abuse, even when the law actually does prohibit the carriers from sharing information without legal process. It’s desirable to create legal space for limited cyberthreat information sharing—but it has to be done without creating a large and tempting backdoor through which government might seek to use “voluntary information sharing” as a way to avoid getting a warrant or court order.

It Is Less Important Who Pays Taxes Than What Government Does With Them

Often when surveying the political landscape here in Washington, one can’t help but be struck by the feeling “is this the most important thing we have to discuss”?  That was my reaction to today’s Politico story on party differences with extending the payroll tax cut.  The difference, as Politico would have us believe, are that Democrats want millionaires to pay, while Republicans want government employees to bear the costs.  It seems to be the case with whatever the issue is, who pays

Quite simply, this debate between Republicans and Democrats over who should bear the costs of government is completely misplaced.  We should be asking ourselves why the government has such a deep involvement in our lives in the first place.

If the government should not be involved in an activity, how is said activity any more just if its paid for by millionaires or the middle class.  Would the fact that we have the largest prison population in the world somehow be more just if only more of the cost of it was borne by millionaires?  Would having our failed drug war funded solely by millionaires turn it into a success?  How about the U.S. playing world policeman?  Would we be more loved around the world if our military was funded more by millionaires?  Would we be viewed as honest brokers in the Middle East if our foreign aid was funded by millionaires?  Is having children struck in failing public schools more just if those schools are funded by millionaires?

Here’s my offer to both my Democrat and Republican friends, you let me decide what the size and scope of government is going to be, and I am happy to let you decide upon “who pays”.

Congress’s Budget in Perspective

A new poll conducted for The Hill found that 67 percent of likely voters think members of Congress should take a pay cut. With the economy still struggling and the government’s debt continuing to mount, congressional pay is – understandably – a sore subject with voters. However, I get the impression that a lot of people think that cutting Congress’s budget would have a sizable impact on the government’s financial situation.

It wouldn’t.

The following chart shows fiscal 2011 spending for the House and Senate, the entire legislative branch, and the entire government:

Spending for the House and Senate, which includes salaries, mailings, and committee expenses, represents only .07 percent of total federal spending. The entire legislative branch includes additional expenses for the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress, and other functions that can be viewed here. It only amounts to .14 percent of total federal spending.

Please do not take this post to mean that I believe that congressional pay is completely unimportant. The point is that congressional pay is relatively unimportant when measured against the overall size of the federal budget. Therefore, I think those readers who are concerned about government spending and debt should focus their attention on considerably larger problems like Social Security, Medicare, and military spending.