Archives: 06/2012

Senate Saves Corporate Welfare Program from 20% Cut

The Senate’s “vote-a-rama” on amendments to the farm bill continued yesterday. Thus far, almost all of the amendments that would have cut spending have failed. One failed amendment in particular is worth highlighting because it demonstrates the blatant disregard for taxpayers that exists in the Senate.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment that would have cut the $200 million Market Access Program by 20 percent. MAP uses taxpayer money “to help U.S. producers, exporters, private companies, and other trade organizations finance promotional activities for U.S. agricultural products.” In other words, it’s textbook corporate welfare.

According to a new report produced by Coburn’s office, promotional activities that MAP has subsidized include advertising for pet food and animal spa products, wine tastings, and reality television shows. To make a point, Coburn’s amendment would have also prohibited MAP from funding those four items in particular.

The vote count on Coburn’s amendment was 30 “yes” and 69 “no.” Eighteen Republicans joined all but two Democrats in making sure that MAP can continue to spend taxpayer money promoting hair care products for dogs, cats, and horses. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

Fidel Castro, Medicare Beneficiary?

There’s no proof yet, but it looks an awful lot like Medicare might be subsidizing the Castro brothers.

I, for one,  was not surprised to read that Medicare payments for non-existent medical services are ending up in Cuban (read: government-controlled) banks. Nor that “accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records.”

In fact, I have been wondering for some time when we would see evidence that foreign governments have been stealing from Medicare. The official (read: conservative) estimates are that Medicare and Medicaid lose $70 billion each year to fraud and improper payments, a result of having almost zero meaningful controls in place. That’s practically an open invitation to steal from American taxpayers. Kleptocratic governments—and other organized-crime rings—would be insane not to wet their beaks.

In this National Review article, I explain how easily it could happen:

Last year, the feds indicted 44 members of an Armenian crime syndicate for operating a sprawling Medicare-fraud scheme. The syndicate had set up 118 phony clinics and billed Medicare for $35 million. They transferred at least some of their booty overseas. Who knows what LBJ’s Great Society is funding?

I also explain how these vast amounts of fraud aren’t going to stop without fundamental Medicare and Medicaid reform. Give the National Review article a read, and tell me if you share my suspicion that Medicare is bankrolling other governments.

Egyptian Elections: Is the Revolution Over?

Before the news of Hosni Mubarak’s impending death dominated the news cycle, the real issue on Egypt was what happened in the past week. On Thursday, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court effectively dissolved parliament. On Sunday, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a supplementary constitutional declaration that stripped the presidency of most of its power and gave itself temporary legislative authority and a strong hand in writing the country’s new constitution. Egypt’s democracy now hangs by a thread after what amounts to a de facto coup. U.S. policymakers ought to reassess Washington’s aims with Cairo and weigh the supposed value of American military and economic aid against the outcomes actually reached. Evidence suggests that U.S. aid can and should be phased out, providing Egypt the domestic political shake-up its young democracy desperately needs.

U.S. officials must consider the precise purpose of military aid programs, particularly their usefulness with respect to Egyptian-Israeli peace. Proponents of aid stand the region’s geopolitics on its head, arguing that aid dissuades Egypt’s military from initiating war against Israel. Little to no attention is paid to the fact that Washington advances interests that Egypt already has, as war with Israel would be disastrous for Egypt, aid or no.

Throughout the Cold War, Egypt and Israel fought a war nearly every decade: 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1969, and 1973. Egypt’s military realized long ago—and more importantly, on its own accord—the hazards of its perpetual confrontation with Israel. Its adherence to the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Agreement of September 1978 was the culmination of lessons learned from its devastating military defeats.

Egyptian-Israeli peace is assured not by Washington’s largesse to Cairo, but by the memory of its humiliating military losses and the desperate economic conditions in Egypt. Nevertheless, Cairo continues to wage covert measures against Israel—again, despite receiving U.S. assistance. Earlier this year, pro-military fliers distributed in Egyptian taxis blamed the United States, Israel, and other foreign powers for causing the country’s crisis. In addition, under Mubarak, Israeli authorities complained that Egypt was failing to effectively control the smuggling of arms and explosives in tunnels under Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Other material was also being transferred by sea and above ground by smugglers with the complicity of Egyptian soldiers and officers. Israeli Security Agency director Yuval Diskin believed that Egyptian leaders lacked the will to crack down on these weapons networks because they viewed Israel as a safety valve that channeled extremists away from Egypt.

Recent tensions in the Sinai could have serious implications. As Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif writes:

Sinai will remain a critical point of friction between Israel and Egypt. Since the collapse of the Libyan regime, huge caches of weapons have found their way from Libya into the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, the fact that Hamas has now access to new armaments represents a huge security challenge. It is a situation that neither Israel nor Egypt can control. The former may decide to carry out a preemptive strike against Hamas and loyal cells deep within Sinai. Such unilateral action could easily develop into a regional conflict. [Emphasis added]

Even if structural factors between Israel and Egypt do not change, and Israel retains its overwhelming military superiority, the potential for overreaction or miscalculation could spiral into conflict. Such a scenario would put U.S. officials in an embarrassing position, having supplied massive amounts of military hardware and economic assistance to both belligerents for over three decades.

Presently, Washington supports a regime in Cairo that continues to view Israel as an enemy and entrenches its power through brutality and political repression. Until recently, Cairo’s Islamist government was intent on incorporating Sharia law and cooperating (for more U.S. aid) with America. Moreover, many Egyptians—angered by lack of progress on Palestinian self-determination through the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state—are increasingly frustrated with an America that sends massive military and financial assistance to their regime (over $60 billion in military grants and economic assistance since 1975).

Decades of U.S. aid has done nothing to turn Egypt into a democracy or a market economy. Unfortunately, as made clear by the transfer of power in February 2011 from former president, Hosni Mubarak, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt has not undergone a revolution, but rather a thinly veiled attempt by the armed forces to perpetuate their six decades in power.

Months ago, the Obama administration resumed funding to Egypt, even though Congress restricted military aid until and unless the State Department could certify that Egypt progressed toward democracy, basic freedoms, and human rights. A senior Obama administration official said at the time that there would be no way to certify that all conditions were being met. Today, however, with thousands of activists being detained and tried in military courts, overwhelming evidence shows that Egypt’s military junta has not met any of the aforementioned obligations. The military, which commands an array of commercial enterprises in industries such as water, olive oil, cement, construction, hospitality, and gasoline, limited democracy to advance their narrow self-interests.

In Cairo, a freely elected civilian government will always be powerless against a deeply entrenched military. The flourishing of a secular-minded liberal democracy would of course be ideal, but guided by the belief that picking sides in the Arab world advances U.S. strategic interests, senior officials endorse a policy that in the short-term could stymie Islamists, but in the long-run discredit reformers and increase the credibility of extremist hardliners. That central paradox plagued America’s counterterrorism policy under Mubarak. As an unclassified U.S. Department of Defense report from 2004 acknowledged:

If it is one overarching goal they [Muslims] share, it is the overthrow of what Islamists call ‘apostate’ regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the Gulf States…Without the U.S. these regimes could not survive. [Emphasis added]

Here, however, a caveat is needed. The Muslim world is expansive, and radicals are only a small part. As Thomas H. Kean, chair of the 9/11 Commission, said in July 2004 before the U.S. Subcommittee on National Security:

The small number of Muslims who are committed to Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam, we can’t dissuade them. We’ve got to jail them or we’ve got to kill them. That’s the bottom line. But, the large majority of Arabs and Muslims are opposed to violence, and with those people, we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy and perhaps, above everything else, opportunity. [Emphasis added]

Even as many in Washington—including this author—strongly reject the Islamists who rose to power in Cairo, it is well past time for us to step back and allow Egyptians to shape their own destiny. Egypt is deterred from attacking Israel not because of U.S. aid or love of the Jewish state, but rather because it has little prospect of gain and much to lose. If tensions erupt in the Sinai and spiral into war, that development would perhaps serve as the greatest indictment against the assumption that decades of U.S. assistance produced a sustainable peace.

Egyptians must judge for themselves whether Islamists or the military can deliver on promises of economic and political reform, especially after decades of substantial U.S. assistance has failed to live up to its aims. Sadly, it seems that given the conventional wisdom in Washington, phasing out U.S. aid to Egypt might be more difficult than phasing out Egypt’s old dictator.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

New Antidumping Rule Magnifies Trade Distortions

The Commerce Department always seems to have more tricks up its sleeve when it comes to increasing the protectionist impact of existing antidumping law.  Yesterday, Commerce announced a new rule that will increase antidumping duties on imports from China and Vietnam if the goods were charged export taxes when they left their country of origin.  The new policy is another example of Commerce cherry-picking how to recognize that these countries are no longer “nonmarket economies” in a way that ironically enables it to increase the discriminatory impact of the inaccurate label.  Moreover, although the move increases pressure on China to decrease or eliminate market-distorting export duties, it does so by ignoring the economic rationale for opposing such duties in a way that highlights the incurable folly of the U.S. antidumping regime.  Antidumping duties supposedly offset the detrimental impact of foreign trade distortion, but this new rule will actually magnify the distortions caused by export taxes.

When China and Vietnam negotiated their accessions to the WTO, they accepted that other members could ignore certain rules in the WTO Antidumping Agreement when using such measures against Chinese or Vietnamese imports and instead apply what is known as nonmarket economy methodology.  The practice of treating nonmarket economies differently for antidumping purposes originated during the Cold War when some Soviet-bloc countries controlled all commodity prices within their territories.  This frustrated both the traditional antidumping methodology as well as the countervailing duty regime designed to offset the benefits of foreign government subsidies.  For decades, Commerce applied a highly subjective and discretionary methodology in antidumping investigations on imports from these countries while, for practical reasons, exempting them from anti-subsidy laws.

This balance was altered in 2007 when the United States decided that China’s economy was sufficiently market-driven so as to be subject to the anti-subsidy regime despite the fact that China was still exposed to use of the nonmarket economy methodology in antidumping investigations.  Now Commerce has reasoned that if it can determine the level of a subsidy in China, then it can measure the level of a tax too.  But because of how nonmarket economy methodology ignores actual domestic prices, taking an export tax into account will simply result in an increase in the duty without regard to the tax’s mitigating effect on the competitiveness of China-based manufacturers.  The bizarre consequence is that both an export subsidy and an export tax can result in higher duties on Chinese imports.

By using the antidumping regime to impose a tax on goods based on the amount of tax they’ve already been charged upon export, the new policy reveals the absurdity of the entire antidumping law.  The United States has been challenging China at the WTO over its export duties on certain rare earths and pointing out that these duties increase the cost of those minerals, making it more difficult for U.S. industries that rely on imports to compete with Chinese firms.  If an increase in the price of imports due to Chinese export taxes is detrimental to U.S. competitiveness, then an increase in price due to U.S. import taxes via antidumping duties is equally detrimental.  (See here and here for Dan Ikenson’s take on this dizzyingly obvious hypocrisy.)  The new policy has the possible effect of making counterproductive import taxes even worse by doubling up the effect of the already harmful export tax.  Rather than creating a “more level playing field,” the result will be an increase in market distortion caused by overlapping taxes, benefiting some inefficient, politically-connected industries at the expense of everyone else.

Time to Fight Statism by Shutting Down the G-20

For the most part, international summits like the recently concluded G-20 meeting in Mexico are pointless - but expensive - publicity stunts for incumbent politicians.

They pose for photo-ops, have boring meeting, and draft up empty communiques, always at some posh location so that everybody - from bureaucrat flunkies to servile reporters - can have a good time.

But these soirees are more than just money-wasting junkets. They also encourage bad policy. With everything that’s happening around the world, the evidence is stronger than ever about the adverse economic consequences of bloated public sectors and punitive tax regimes.

But when politicians get together at gab-fests like the G-20, they inevitably push for more of the same. Here’s some of what David Malpass wrote today for the Wall Street Journal.

…the two-day G-20 summit this week—the diplomatic equivalent of speed dating—did little but drain more money from deeply indebted nations. …the “Los Cabos Growth and Jobs Action Plan” …mostly commits Europe’s struggling economies to still more government control… The clearest decisions that came out of the summit promoted governments, not private sectors, pointing to even more deficit spending, an IMF expansion led by China and another expensive G-20 meeting next year in Russia. The outcome raises fundamental doubts about the G-20’s value in furthering free markets, strong private economies and global living standards.

David goes on to note that economic problems are rooted in the bad policies of individual governments, so it is illogical to expect that they can be solved by an international summit.

The obstacles to global growth in 2012 are clear and need to be addressed in national capitals, not in summits. Europe’s policy initiatives are probably the most urgent. Europe’s growth focus should be maintaining the euro and setting up decisive mechanisms to reduce borrowing costs while governments sell assets, downsize and remove private-sector obstacles. …the leaders’ time would have been better spent in Europe hammering out the actual mechanisms. …Fast global growth is achievable, but the G-20 summits aren’t helping. Country-specific tasks—not further institutionalization of global financial governance—are the solution.

The final point about “global financial governance” is worth emphasizing. While it is true that nothing good has ever happened because of a G-20 summit, some bad things have occurred - most notably the big push a couple of years ago to attack low-tax jurisdiction as part of a campaign by high-tax governments to cripple tax competition and facilitate higher tax burdens.

International summits also tend to be the types of gatherings where other bad policies occur, such as agreements to subsidize more bailouts by giving more money to the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fund.

The moral of the story is that the G-20 is a great idea…but only if you think the entire world should become more like France, Italy, Spain, and Greece.

P.S. I also dislike international summits since the thugs at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to throw me in a Mexican jail for the “crime” of standing in the public lobby of a public hotel and advising low-tax jurisdictions during one of the OECD’s “global tax forums.”

We’re Not Censoring YOU—Just Your Computer!

Consider an argument for denying First Amendment protection to movies and video games. Human beings, we all agree, have constitutional rights—but mere machines do not. When the computer in your game console or DVD player “decides” to display certain images on a screen, therefore, this is not protected speech, but merely the output of a mechanical process that legislatures may regulate without any special restrictions. All those court rulings that have found these media to be protected forms of expression, therefore, are confused efforts to imbue computers with constitutional rights—surely foreshadowing the ominous rise of Skynet.

Probably nobody finds this argument very convincing, and it hardly takes a legal scholar to see what’s wrong with it: Computers don’t really autonomously “decide” anything: They execute algorithms that embody decisions made by their human programmers. (If, one day, we develop advanced Artificial Intelligences that really are effectively autonomous speakers, their constitutional status will be a fascinating and difficult question). Movies and video games are made by teams of human beings, whose expressive choices are merely executed and transmitted by computers. You can’t somehow “just” regulate the computer without effectively restricting human expression at the same time. Simple, obvious.

Yet writing in The New York Times, legal scholar Tim Wu makes a surprisingly similar argument with respect to search engines and various kinds of data sharing on social networking sites or online marketplaces. Wu is implicitly responding to those like Eugene Volokh, who claim that the First Amendment does indeed constrain legislatures who might seek to regulate these activities for the sake of privacy or informational “fairness.” Is there any way to distinguish Wu’s argument from my imagined, clearly invalid one? Wu hints at one:

The line can be easily drawn: as a general rule, nonhuman or automated choices should not be granted the full protection of the First Amendment, and often should not be considered “speech” at all. (Where a human does make a specific choice about specific content, the question is different.)

This doesn’t seem all that easy to me, however. In many video games, the exact progression of any particular play-through will often be partly (and in some cases substantially) randomized. In performances of “aleatoric music,” perhaps most famously associated with the avant garde composer John Cage, a human artist provides an algorithmic structure that leaves the “specific content” of the piece to be determined by chance—whether provided by a computer or some other pseudorandom mechanism—and therefore varying in each performance. All compositions, for that matter, are essentially “algorithms” whose specific character as a heard expression, will be determined by a performer, whether human or machine. And do we really think a blog that rounded up links and produced summaries of important news stories about privacy or human rights could be unceremoniously shut down if it were assembled and published by a scraping algorithm rather than active human curation? What degree of human intervention in the running of an aggregation algorithm would transform it into protected speech? Would it be enough to manually delete irrelevant links incorrectly harvested by the algorithm, or tweak poorly-worded summaries, before each post went live? Must the programmer be careful not to make her algorithm too good, lest she render such intervention unnecessary and surrender First Amendment protection?

If Wu’s argument seems in any way plausible, it’s because his computer/human distinction is not actually doing any of the heavy lifting in his piece. When he writes that various kinds of information manipulation are “only indirectly related to the purposes of the First Amendment,” the force of the argument depends entirely on how far we agree with that normative judgment about those classes of information processing, not the means by which they’re accomplished. It’s clear that Wu—in contrast to Volokh—believes that the commercial sale of databases of personal information is not “speech” in the sense intended by the First Amendment. Would he really feel any differently if those databases were compiled and transmitted by hand, rather than electronically? Or, turning to the search context, would it really matter if the task of recommending a list of Web sites deemed relevant to a topic (or especially family-friendly, or whatever other feature a company might be advertising) were carried out by humans in a data center in Bangalore, rigorously following a list of criteria developed by some different group of human analysts, and encouraging them to recommend partners and paid advertisers over their competitors whenever possible? Again, of course not. The real argument—everything Wu says that has any persuasive force to it—depends on the character of the activity in question, not its implementation.

So why focus on the computer/human distinction at all? First, because courts are justifiably reluctant to declare whole classes of expressive conduct beyond the bounds of the First Amendment: The whole point of a presumption of free speech is to avoid having to make ad hoc determinations about the “social value” of various kinds of expression. Second, because the character-based arguments on their own, relying on a sharp distinction between commerce and speech that’s hard to draw in a blurry world, are all subject to strong counterarguments, and probably insufficient to overcome the presumption in favor of expression.

As a slogan, “Free speech for humans, not for computers” sounds pithy and appears to provide a bright-line standard that avoids the hard and messy questions involved in an analysis grounded in the nature of the speech (or, more neutrally, “information manipulation”) itself. But again, that distinction does no independent work in the argument. If Wu wants to make the case that certain categories of conduct involving information deserve diminished protection, whether directly executed by humans or indirectly with the aid of computer processors, he should do so. The attempt to shift the focus to a red-herring distinction between human and computer “expression” betrays a recognition that this case, stated clearly on its own terms, is a weak one.

Don’t Let This Happen to You: How I Unwittingly Abetted My Own Droning by the DC Government

Now that the pulsating of the veins running through my forehead has subsided and the bile in my throat tastes a little less bitter, I am capable of sharing a story – a cautionary tale – about the brave new world in which we live.  Before this past Saturday, I never gave a second thought to the fact that my minivan is called an “Odyssey,” but the events of that day tell a tale of epic incompetence and infuriating heavy-handedness of the government of the District of Columbia.

Scene 1

The day began with a sense of excitement and anticipation, as I was taking my two sons, nephew, and father-in-law to the Washington Nationals game. We arrived at the stadium early (about 11:00 for a 1:05 start) to catch batting practice and maybe score an autograph or two.

About three blocks from the stadium, there were plenty of legal parking spots along the street and signs indicating how to pay for parking by telephone.  It would cost $1.50 per hour or about $10 total – a steal compared to the $30-$40 being charged in the nearby lots.  The Pay-by-Phone system was simple enough to use: I registered my tag and my credit card number by phone, and was messaged a “Parkmobile” app to use for loading and reloading the meter from my phone.  Sweet and simple!

After 13 innings and the game still locked at 3 runs apiece, it was about 5:30 pm and time to get going. We’d catch the rest of the game on the radio during the ride home.  But that never happened.  It never happened because I couldn’t turn on the radio.  I couldn’t turn on the radio because I couldn’t find my car.  In the spot where I had left it was parked a blue BMW with Virginia tags, presumably belonging to another baseball fan.

My car was either stolen or towed, but I could see no reason for the latter.  I had reloaded the virtual meter a few times from my stadium seat and there were no indications of any prohibitions.  I walked down the street to a no parking zone and dialed a number posted on a nearby “If-Towed-Call-This-Number” sign, which connected me to an answering machine at the Department of Public Works.

Scene 2

After listening to Muzak for 15 minutes, I was connected to a “customer service” representative, who took my information (tag number) and confirmed that my car had been towed.  For what infraction, she did not know.  But she offered that my car had been towed to a lot at 800 New Jersey Avenue, NW.  “How thoughtful of DPW,” I quipped. “It’s not like we’re all the way over here in SE Washington.”  Three sweaty kids, my father-in-law, and I climbed into a taxi and promptly joined the slow procession leaving the stadium area.

Upon arrival at the address on the other side of town, the six of us crammed in the cab gazed in wonderment out the taxi’s windows at the sight of … nothing.  We saw nothing approximating a parking lot.  We saw no lot. We saw no Odyssey.  We were on an odyssey.

Scene 3

From the location to which we had been misdirected, I redialed the DPW and was eventually connected to the same “customer service” representative I had spoken with 30 minutes earlier. “Um, we’ve just taken a taxi to 800 New Jersey Avenue, NW, but there’s no lot here.  What’s the story?” I asked.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “That location was incorrect.  The correct location is the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE.”  “#$%%#$  #@@$#%# ,” I said.  “That’s almost exactly where we started.”  “You #$%, *&#@ ##@!” 

The kids were learning a whole new vocabulary. 

The taxi driver took us to the new address given, which was literally two blocks from where my car had been parked.  There was a parking lot there, so we got out of the cab and gave the driver his $25.  My car, alas, was not in the lot.

Scene 4

The vocabulary lesson recommenced in earnest.  I redialed DPW and was eventually reconnected with my friend, who elaborated that my car was NOT in a lot, but parked along the street on the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE.  I wasn’t positive that we were precisely standing at the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue because there we no buildings or addresses to indicate.  About 50 yards south of where I stood was I Street, SE, which demarks the 900 block of New Jersey Avenue.  I confirmed that I was at the 900 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE and could see for about a quarter mile down the vacant street, which goes under I-395 and up to the U.S. Capitol, and that there were no cars parked on the street; nothing, in fact, but gently rolling tumbleweed. 

But she insisted that I had to be precisely at 800 New Jersey Avenue, SE to determine whether my car was, in fact, there.  So I walked up New Jersey, under I-395, with kids and father-in-law trailing, until the next cross street, which was E Street, SE – the 500 block of New Jersey.  There may have been an 800 block, but there were no demarcations to speak of between the 900 and 500 block.  Along that stretch, there were no parked cars.  My car was definitely not on the 800 block of New Jersey Avenue, SE.

Scene 5

Calculating that my children and nephew had been treated to enough creative poetry, I asked my father-in-law to take them home (to Bethesda) in a taxi, which he did.  Meanwhile, the “helper,” who remained adamant that my car was at said location because I couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that I was standing precisely at 800 New Jersey when rendering the “missing” verdict (even though I told her that I walked from the 900 to the 500 block and back with both eyes open and saw no cars), grudgingly agreed to try to locate a “supervisor,” who might be of some assistance.  A supervisor might have been of some assistance, but for the problem that THEY HAD ALL GONE HOME FOR THE DAY – a feat I was laboring to accomplish myself.

Left with no other choices, I called the DC Metropolitan Police and reported my car stolen.  The dispatcher asked me to remain at my location, which I reported as “approximately” 800 New Jersey Avenue, SE.

Scene 6

About 20 minutes later a police cruiser pulled up and an officer began taking my information for a stolen vehicle report.  When I told him the story and the model and year of my car, he put down his pen and said that it was most likely not stolen.  The DPW, he said, has a terrible habit of towing cars but failing to log into the system the locations to which they’ve been towed.  He didn’t need to work very hard to convince me of his theory.

The officer said he had four cruisers scouring the area for potential drop sites and told me to hang tight and that he’d return.  At approximately 8:30pm, the police returned and informed me that my car had been located.  It was impounded at a lot in Northeast Washington, which was closed until Monday.

As the last traces of daylight fell behind the Lincoln Memorial, I was hoofing it from Southeast toward Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, where my wife was going to pick me up.  I still didn’t know why my legally-parked car had been towed in the first place.

Final Scene

On Monday during the lunch hour, my wife drove me to 15th Street, NE to the impound lot, where the pieces of the puzzle came together.  I was given an invoice for the services rendered on my behalf – $100 for towing and $40 for storage.  Additionally, to get my car back, I would have to pay for two photo enforcement speeding tickets I had received in the mail in late April for going 41 in a 30 MPH zone on two consecutive days, which I had not yet paid. The payments were 15 and 16 days overdue, so instead of $125 each, they set me back $250 each.  Fine, the late payment was my fault, but did it have to come to this?  There was no parking violation to pay; there was no other cause for towing my car in the first place.

What had happened was that upon registering my tags to initiate the Pay-by-Phone meter service, a database linked to the computer system of the otherwise incompetent DPW generated a red flag indicating the location of a vehicle associated with unpaid fines.  DPW acted with dispatch and efficiency to steal my car to hold as collateral, and then with incompetence about locating it and indifference about the enormous inconvenience and expense of the process. 

Epilogue

But the broader lesson from this tale reinforces concerns about privacy and information sharing and the proclivity of government to use our personal information for purposes outside the scope of our expectations and possibly threatening our freedoms.  Be skeptical about initiatives like National ID or national databases sold in the name of public safety or health.  Read and listen to the concerns raised by people like Cato’s Jim Harper and Julian Sanchez.  Governments use the personal data you supply for purposes you did not intend, so be judicious about sharing.  

And be careful about the allure of technological convenience; it might just be Big Brother waiting to pounce.