Archives: 07/2012

HHS Offers to Pay Six Years of Operating Costs for Some States’ ObamaCare Exchanges

That’s my read of this.

ObamaCare gives HHS the authority to make unlimited grants to help states create Exchanges. But that authority expires on December 31, 2014. HHS just issued an announcement that they will issue grants right up to midnight on December 31—and that some of those grants will be so big that they will last for five years:

Q4: What is the last day that a State can spend its award?

A4: Grantees are encouraged to drawdown funding within their budget period (up to one year for Level One and up to three years for Level Two grants); however, at the recommendation of CCIIO’s State Officer and at the discretion of the Grant Management Officer, grantees may receive a no-cost extension that will allow them to spend funding up to the expiration date of the project period. At HHS’s discretion, a project period can be extended for a maximum of five years past the date of the award. Note, however, that all spending of §1311(a) funds awarded under a cooperative agreement must be consistent with the scope of the statute, FOA, and terms and conditions of the awarded cooperative agreement. [Emphasis added.]

The last sentence is there just to make sure no one suspects them of violating the law, wink-wink.

Since HHS can make unlimited grants in the first year that Exchanges are supposed to operate (2014), this means HHS is trying to pay for the operating expenses of some states’ Exchanges for six years (2014-2019).

Corporate Welfare Fail in Indiana

Corporate welfare is a bipartisan problem, and it’s a problem at both the federal and state level. Yesterday, I discussed the recent demise of Obama-subsidized Abound Solar and the fact that Indiana Republicans were also involved in helping the company obtain taxpayer handouts. Adding insult to injury is another example of “crony capitalism” gone awry in Indiana.

The Indy Star recently reported on an attempt by the state’s Indiana Economic Development Corporation to pressure the city of Madison into subsidizing a manufacturing facility for a shady California businesswoman. The entire investigative report needs to be read in order to fully appreciate the incompetence displayed by the IEDC’s wannabe venture capitalists, but here are some excerpts:

Build us a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, throw in some needed equipment – all for around $5 million – and we’ll create up to 200 new jobs. That was the pitch by a California businesswoman and her renewable energy company, Global Energy Solutions, to officials at the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and, ultimately, the city of Madison.

The company was searching for a site in Indiana – and the purpose of the IEDC, which reports to the Indiana secretary of commerce, is to lure jobs to Indiana and often provide incentives. IEDC officials did just that. They approved $1.5 million in tax credit and training incentives. They also began pressuring the city of Madison to act on the proposal – and quickly.

“Secretary of Commerce Dan Hasler asked me to send the following message,” an IEDC official emailed City Council President Laura Hodges. “If Madison is not going to take advantage of the job creation and investment opportunity being presented by Global Energy Solutions (and that’s OK), don’t further frustrate the company with delays. We do not want to lose this project for Indiana.”

In their rush to generate a favorable press release for Gov. Mitch Daniels, which is the IEDC’s real mission, IEDC officials apparently didn’t bother to look into the background of the character they were anxious to fork over taxpayer money to:

An Indianapolis Star investigation has uncovered numerous red flags regarding Global Energy Solutions and its president, Mynette Boykin – red flags that experts say raise questions about the IEDC’s due diligence on a project that would have cost local and regional taxpayers several million dollars:

Boykin claimed that another company of hers, Secured Capital Investment Group, would eventually commit $500,000 to the Indiana project, emails show. That company, however, forfeited its California business license in 2011 because it didn’t pay more than $40,000 in taxes.

Boykin noted in her business plan that DC Solar Solutions would be “working in collaboration” with her on the project. When The Star contacted the owners of DC Solar Solutions, they said they never agreed to work with Boykin.

Boykin filed for bankruptcy in 2005 with $1 million in debts. In April of this year, a company filed suit against her for an unpaid $100,000 loan.

The Star shared Boykin’s business plan with an industry expert, who called it “extremely amateurish” and questioned the validity and viability of the proposal.

The Star also determined that other parts of Boykin’s plan are identical to a sample business plan posted on the website bplans.com. The sample plan was for a company that makes auto tools.

The good news is that, unlike the IEDC, the locals in Madison did some probing. As they should have given that the cost to the city would have been $4 to $5 million. When a presentation given by Boykin failed to impress Madison’s city council, it became clear that the deal was dead. That didn’t sit well with the IEDC’s representing bureaucrat:

Regardless, IEDC official Wanda Heath was there, and she addressed the council for the first time. She sounded irritated. “You could tell she wasn’t happy,” said Councilman Darrell Henderson, a Democrat.

She also made it clear that she felt that Madison council members weren’t doing their job properly. “She said, ‘You guys are moving way too slow; you’re making Madison look bad; this process should never take this long; no business is ever going to come to Madison being treated like this,’” said Councilman Rick Berry, a Republican.

“I really thought that was out of order,” another councilman, Republican Jim Lee, said. Lee told The Star that in his 12-plus years as a councilman, he had never before seen a representative from the state at an executive session. He felt like he and the other council members were being talked down to.

After leaving town, a defiant Boykin told the Star that “We will come to a different state. Probably right next to you guys.” Unfortunately, it’s not implausible that another state’s Department of Corporate Welfare will eventually come to her aid as this sort of scheming with taxpayer money is definitely not a problem that is unique to Indiana.

On July 4, Remember to Keep Your Republic!

As America celebrates its independence, even we foreigners who live here have much to celebrate. (I’m a Soviet-born naturalized Canadian who’s lived in the United States my entire adult life—finally got my green card three years ago—and like most immigrants, do a job Americans won’t: defending the Constitution.)

Indeed, those of us who voluntarily chose to come here very much appreciate all that native-born Americans take for granted: the rule of law, equality under the law, self-government whose very limitation protects liberty, freedom of speech and religion, property rights, and enforceable contracts. It is these things that have allowed the United States to become the land of opportunity—which is why it’s so heartbreaking when the rule of law is undermined, self-government debased, and individual liberty subverted such as has been the case throughout the entire ObamaCare debacle.

In this 225th year of the Constitution—Cato will celebrate the anniversary at our Constitution Day Symposium in September—we all need to remember that our founding document, the codification of that grand experiment in self-government which began on July 4, 1776, cannot protect our liberties if we do not act to enforce it. Benjamin Franklin explained that what the Framers has created was “a Republic, if you can keep it.” How do we keep it? A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson is the perfect response: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

How will you demonstrate your vigilance? I’ll be doing so by speaking briefly about my favorite Federalist Paper, number 51 (“If men were angels…” at the Alexandria Tea Party’s Fourth of July Celebration. Hope to see you there, in person or in spirit!

Topics:

Fourth Amendment Gone to the Dogs—and to Lasers?!

For all their use by law enforcement across the country, drug-sniffing dogs haven’t gotten a lot of consideration in the Supreme Court. In a pair of cases next fall, though, the Court seems likely to give them some attention. Florida v. Harris is one of the cases it has taken. Harris will examine “[w]hether an alert by a well-trained narcotics detection dog certified to detect illegal contraband is insufficient to establish probable cause for the search of a vehicle.”

This week, we filed an amicus brief in the other drug-sniffing dog case, coming out of the same state. Florida v. Jardines asks whether the Fourth Amendment would be implicated if the government brought a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of your home seeking the scent of illegality.

What the Court has done with drug-sniffing dogs so far is not very good. We homed in on the major precedent, Caballes, to illustrate the weakness of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test that originated in United States v. Katz (1967).

In Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005), this Court did not apply Katz analysis. It did not examine (or even assume) whether Roy Caballes had exhibited a subjective expectation of privacy, the first step in the Katz test. Thus, the Court could not take the second step, examining its objective reasonableness.

Instead, the Caballes Court skipped forward to a corollary of the Katz test that the Court had drawn in United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984): “Official conduct that does not ‘compromise any legitimate interest in privacy’ is not a search subject to the Fourth Amendment.” Caballes, 543 U.S. at 408 (quoting Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 123).

This is a logical extension of the Katz test, and one that helps reveal its weakness in maintaining the Fourth Amendment’s protections consistently over time. Now, instead of examining whether searches and seizures are reasonable, courts applying the Jacobsen/Caballes corollary can uphold any activity of government agents sufficiently tailored to discovering only crime.

What kinds of activities might those include? We talked about lasers.

A DHS program that might be directed not only at persons, but also at their houses and effects, is called the “Remote Vapor Inspection System” (or RVIS). RVIS “generates laser beams at various frequencies” to be aimed at a “target vapor.” Beams “reflected and scattered back to the sensor head” reveal “spectral ‘signatures’” that can be compared with the signatures of sought-after gasses and particulates. [citations omitted] Using RVIS, government agents might remotely examine the molecular content of the air in houses and cars, quietly and routinely explore the gasses exiting houses through chimneys and air ducts, and perhaps even silently inspect any person’s exhaled breath. If RVIS technology is programmed to indicate only on substances that indicate wrongdoing, the Jacobsen/Caballes corollary extinguishes the idea that its pervasive, frequent, and secret use would be a search.

If a dog sniff only reveals illegal activity, compromising no privacy interest, it’s not a search. So using lasers to check your breath for illegal substances is not a search either. We hope, obviously, that the Court will do away with this rule, which is so attenuated from both the language and the purpose of the Fourth Amendment.

Instead of determining whether a person has “reasonable expectations of privacy”—we called that doctrine a “jumble of puzzles”—courts should examine whether a “search” has occurred by seeing if police accessed something that was hidden from view.

When a person has used physics and law to conceal something from others, the Fourth Amendment and the Court should back those privacy-protective arrangements, breaching them only when there is probable cause and a warrant (or some exception to the warrant requirement).

To hold otherwise would be to allow the government to invade privacy not just using drug-sniffing dogs but using ever more sophisticated technology.

Three Lessons from the Increasingly Irrelevant Annual Wiretap Report

The 2011 Wiretap Report was released this weekend, providing an overview of how federal and state governments used wiretapping powers in criminal investigations. (Surveillance for intelligence purposes is covered in a separate, far less informative report.) There’s plenty of interesting detail, but here’s the bottom line:

After climbing 34 percent in 2010 the number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2011 deceased 14 percent. A total of 2,732 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2011, with 792 authorized by federal judges and 1,940 authorized by state judges…. Compared to the numbers approved during 2010 the number of applications reported as approved by federal judges declined 34 percent in 2011, and the number of applications approved by state judges fell 2 percent. The reduction in wiretaps resulted primarily from a drop in applications for narcotics.

So is the government really spying on us less? Is the drug war cooling off? Well, no, that’s lesson number one: Government surveillance is now almost entirely off the books.

The trouble, as Andy Greenberg of Forbes explains, is that we’ve got analog reporting requirements in a digital age. The courts have to keep a tally of how often they approve traditional intercepts that are primarily used to pick up realtime phone conversationse—96 percent of all wiretap orders. But phone conversations represent an ever-dwindling proportion of modern communication, and police almost never use a traditional wiretap order to pick up digital conversations in realtime. Why would they? Realtime wiretap orders require jumping all sorts of legal hurdles that don’t apply to court orders for stored data, which is more convenient anyway, since it enables investigators to get a whole array of data, often spanning weeks or month, all at once. But nobody is required to compile data on those types of information requests, even though they’re often at least as intrusive as traditional wiretaps.

From what information we do have, however, it seems clear that phone taps are small beer compared to other forms of modern surveillance. As Greenberg notes, Verizon reported fielding more than 88,000 requests for data in 2006 alone. These would have ranged from traditional wiretaps, to demands for stored text messages and photos, to “pen registers” revealing a target’s calling patterns, to location tracking orders, to simple requests for a subscriber’s address or billing information. Google, which is virtually unique among major Internet services in voluntarily disclosing this sort of information, fielded 12,271 government requests for data, and complied with 11,412 of them. In other words, just one large company reports far more demands for user information than all the wiretaps issued last year combined. And again, that is without even factoring in the vast amount of intelligence surveillance that occurs each year: the thousands of FISA wiretaps, the tens of thousands of National Security Letters (which Google is forbidden to include in its public count) and the uncountably vast quantities of data vacuumed up by the NSA. At what point does the wiretap report, with its minuscule piece of the larger surveillance picture, just become a ridiculous, irrelevant formality?

Lesson two: The drug war accounts for almost all criminal wiretaps. Wiretaps may be down a bit in 2011, but over the long term they’ve still increased massively. Since 1997, even as communication has migrated from telephone networks to the internet on a mass scale, the annual number of wiretaps has more than doubled. And as this handy chart assembled by security researcher Chris Soghoian shows, our hopeless War on Drugs is driving almost all of it: for fully 85 percent of wiretaps last year, a drug offense was the most serious offense listed on the warrant application—compared with “only” 73 percent of wiretaps in 1997. Little surprise there: when you try to criminalize a transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer, enforcement tends to require invasions of privacy. Oddly, law enforcement officials tend to gloss over these figures when asking legislators for greater surveillance authority. Perhaps citizens wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about approving these intrusive and expensive spying powers if they realized they were used almost exclusively to catch dope peddlers rather than murderers or kidnappers.

Speaking of dubious claims, lesson three: The encryption apocalypse is not nigh. As those of you who are both extremely nerdy and over 30 may recall, back in the 1990s we had something called the “Crypto Wars.” As far as the U.S. government was concerned, strong encryption technology was essentially a military weapon—not the sort of thing you wanted to allow in private hands, and certainly not something you could allow to be exported around the world. Law enforcement officials (and a few skittish academics) warned of looming anarchy unless the state cracked down hard on so-called “cypherpunks.” The FBI’s Advanced Telephony Unit issued a dire prediction in 1992 that within three years, they’d be unable to decipher 40 percent of the communications they intercepted.

Fortunately, they lost, and strong encryption in private hands has become the indispensable foundation of a thriving digital economy—and a vital shield for dissidents in repressive regimes. Frankly, it would probably have been worth the tradeoff even if the dire predictions had been right. But as computer scientist Matt Blaze observed back when the 2010 wiretap report was released, Ragnarok never quite arrives. The latest numbers show that investigators encountered encryption exactly 12 times in all those thousands of wiretaps. And how many times did that encryption prevent them from accessing the communication in question? Zero. Not once.

Now, to be sure, precisely because police seldom use wiretap orders for e-mail, that’s also a highly incomplete picture of the cases where investigations run up against encryption walls. But as the FBI once again issues panicked warnings that they’re “going dark” and demands that online companies be requried to compromise security by building surveillance backdoors into their services, it’s worth recalling that we’ve heard this particular wolf cry before. It would have been a disastrous mistake to heed it back then, and on the conspicuously scanty evidence being offered during the encore, it would be crazy to approach these renewed demands with anything less than a metric ton of salt.

Anti-Universal Coverage Club in the Washington Post

Ezra Klein:

Michael Cannon, director of health-care policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, formed the “Anti-Universal Coverage Club,” whose members “reject the idea that government should ensure that all individuals have health insurance.” This attitude is now the norm within the Republican Party, even if it is rarely acknowledged so starkly.

Dear Republicans: You’re welcome.