Archives: 12/2012

Homeland Security Grants: Subsidizing Dystopia with Your Tax Dollars

My Washington Examiner column this week focuses on an important new study from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.”  If you’ve read any of the ample media coverage the report’s received, you may have heard that DHS grants have gone toward 13 sno-cone machines for terror-warriors in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a Halloween “zombie apocalypse” demonstration at a swank resort outside San Diego.

But, as I argue in the Examiner,

the media focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse” misses a graver problem with DHS’s decade-long spending spree. Sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse” parties aren’t the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.

The useless projects DHS funds are far less troubling than the ones that can be used to harm Americans’ privacy and liberty—and Coburn’s report is replete with examples of the latter.

Just today the Daily noted another troubling DHS project: “Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers…. Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.” The Daily notes, unsurprisingly, “In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant.”

It’s a mistake to look at DHS grants simply through the prism of government waste—as if what’s going on here is of a piece with $500 toilet seats and bridges to nowhere.  The costs of this unthinking slide toward a militarized, high-tech Idiocracy can’t be measured in budgetary terms alone.

More highlights from Coburn’s report after the jump:

Coburn also notes the use of DHS funds for police purchases of “Long Range Acoustic Device” crowd-control weapons:

originally developed for use by the military as a nonlethal way to repel adversaries, including Iraqi insurgents or pirates, by making a loud and intense sound that is capable of damaging hearing. Law enforcement agencies have purchased LRAD machines for purposes that include crowd control and issuing message and alerts across vast distances, though its use in terror-related preparedness is questionable.

In 2009, the Pittsburgh police department used its LRAD machine to disperse a crowd that was protesting the G-20 summit….
In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff stationed its LRAD device at the town-hall meetings of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), which drew conservative and liberal protestors. The San Diego sheriff’s stated that the LRADs were in place so they “could use the LRAD in place of pepper spray” if there were problem at the event, which there was not.

… Mobile Fingerprinting Devices:

The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia,
part of the National Capital Region around
Washington, D.C., spent nearly $12 million to upgrade
its automated fingerprinting system called NOVARIS
and purchased mobile devices for use by officers in the
field. Digital fingerprinting had been in place for
Fairfax police since the early 1980’s, but the county
applied for, and won, UASI funds to purchase a new
state-of-the-art system, that would also help it
coordinate with neighboring counties. “Since it was
due for an upgrade, we took the opportunity to use the
UASI grant funds to refresh the system,” explained Alan Hanson with the department.
Hanson explained that the equipment “is used most often in a voluntary capacity” in situations where people are stopped but do not have identification.

…Armored Personnel Carriers:

police departments are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones. One California resident observed as much when officials in Carlsbad—a city with one of the state’s lowest crime rates—expressed interest in using DHS funds to buy a BearCat: “What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.”….

Fargo, a town which “has averaged fewer than 2 homicides per year since 2005” bought a “new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating [gun] turret” using homeland security funds. Fargo Police Lieutenant Ross Renner acknowledges that Fargo “[does not] have every-day threats here when it comes to terrorism.”

…and “Drones: Patrolling the Skies Like Never Before”:

In Texas, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department successfully acquired a $300,000 Vanguard’s ShadowHawk drone fully paid with UASI dollars. Vanguard, located near Montgomery County, approached the sheriff’s department about procuring one of its unmanned systems, according to Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. In fact, Vanguard helped the Sheriff’s department write “a winning grant proposal that allowed the entire cost of acquisition, training, insurance, and maintenance for a period two years to be absorbed in an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant.”

Do read the whole thing.

U.S. Scores Up, but Why?

Today, bounteous new international academic achievement data were released, from the TIMSS and PIRLS battery of tests. The news for the United States wasn’t too bad, especially with the country ranking fairly high overall (but generally well below high-flying East Asian nations).

How have U.S. scores changed? On 4th grade mathematics average scores have risen precipitously, from 518 (out of 1000) in 1995 and 2003, to 541 in 2011. 8th grade scores were also up, but at a smaller clip, going from 492 in 1995 to 509 in 2011. Interestingly, scores rose ten points between 1995 and 1999, but only seven points between 1999 and 2011.

In science, 4th grade performance was pretty static: 544 in 2011, versus 542 in 1995, with a dip in the line in 2003 and 2007. 8th grade also saw some interesting kinks—the high score was 527 in 2003—but 2011’s score of 525 beat 1995’s 513.

Finally, only 4th graders are tested in PIRLS, the literacy test, and data only go back to 2001. Again there was a dip in the middle, but in 2011 the U.S. average was 556, versus 542 in 2001.

The really crucial question in all of this, of course, is why have the scores—both in the United States and other countries—moved as they have? Unfortunately these reports—at least the basic achievement parts and executive summaries—provide little insight into that. Yes, they tell us that schools with kids who do more math and reading with their parents get better scores, as do schools that are more orderly, but those could easily be functions of an underlying cause: say, families and communities that value education more. Indeed, as I found when looking at the empirical research on national curricular standards, one of the major possible reasons East Asian nations consistently outpace the rest of the world is a culture that values academic achievement, especially on material that is easily tested.

Unfortunately, some educationists are likely to seize on today’s news and declare that their pet policy variable—NCLB! Unionization! National standards! Spending! Even, to be fair, school choice!—explains high performance. But, just from the test scores, it is impossible to reach such conclusions. That requires much deeper analysis, such as the work Andrew Coulson has done in an effort to isolate the impact of  market-like factors on outcomes.

So for now, be happy: the United States has improved somewhat. But don’t make any policy declarations based on that.

Will Khan Academy Fulfill Its Potential?

In today’s Washington Times I review Salman Khan’s new book, The One World Schoolhouse. Pedagogically, the man is brilliant. But he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the economics of education. Here’s how the review leads off:

In “The One World Schoolhouse,” Salman Khan presents a simple thesis: We learn best when we learn actively and at our own pace, mastering each new skill before proceeding to the next. What sets Mr. Khan apart from most pedagogical theorists, besides the fact that he’s actually right, is that he’s giving his services away. His website, KhanAcademy.org, hosts thousands of instructional videos and interactive lessons. Millions of people around the world have used them and sing their praises.

Given his growing success, Mr. Khan’s goal is suitably ambitious: “A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” But he seems to want to change the way the world learns without changing the way the world schools.

Mr. Khan’s focus is inside the classroom on instructional practices and tools. He is largely silent on, and seems indifferent to, the ways schools are managed and how students choose or are assigned to them and the way teachers are trained and compensated.

Continue reading here…

Topics:

Amendment 64 Becomes Law in Colorado

Yesterday Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order that essentially certifies the election results in that state–and that means Amendment 64, which legalizes marijuana possession for adults, is now a part of the Colorado state constitution.  Following  Washington state, Colorado is now the second state to change its law so as to make the recreational use of marijuana legal for adults. 

This means we now have a delicate legal situation where marijuana is legal under state law, but illegal under federal law.  The Justice Department is reportedly considering a legal challenge to the new state laws based upon the legal doctrine of federal supremacy.   In a new Cato paper, entitled “On the Limits of Federal Supremacy,”  law professor Robert Mikos argues that such state laws, and most related regulations, have not been–and cannot be–preempted by the federal government.  Here’s the executive summary:

The American Constitution divides governmental power between the federal government and several state governments. In the event of a conflict between federal law and state law, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) makes it clear that state policies are subordinate to federal policies. There are, however, important limitations to the doctrine of federal supremacy.

First, there must be a valid constitutional basis for the federal policy in question. The powers of the federal government are limited and enumerated, and the president and Congress must always respect the boundary lines that the Constitution created.

Second, even in the areas where federal authorities may enact law, they may not use the states as instruments of federal governance. This anticommandeering limitation upon federal power is often overlooked, but the Supreme Court will enforce that principle in appropriate cases.

Using medical marijuana as a case study, I examine how the anti-commandeering principle protects the states’ prerogative to legalize activity that Congress bans. The federal government has banned marijuana outright, and for years federal officials have lobbied against local efforts to legalize medical use of the drug. However, an ever-growing number of states have adopted legalization measures. I explain why these state laws, and most related regulations, have not been—and cannot be—preempted by Congress. I also develop a new framework for analyzing the boundary between the proper exercise of federal supremacy and prohibited commandeering.

Although I focus on medical marijuana, the legal analysis applies to any issue pitting permissive state laws against restrictive federal regulations. Recent referenda in Colorado and Washington that legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults will likely prompt federal officials to respond by touting the supremacy of the federal ban and challenging the constitutionality of state efforts at legalization. Such state reforms should carry the day in the event of such a legal challenge.

Tomorrow, Professor Mikos will be addressing this subject here at a policy forum.  Former DEA head, Asa Hutchinson, will also be here to offer his thoughts on the interplay between state and federal law and the future direction of drug policy.

The $822,000-per-Year Bureaucrat and the Death of California

Over the years, I’ve shared some outrageous examples of overpaid bureaucrats.

Hopefully we’re all disgusted when insiders rig the system to rip off taxpayers. And I suspect you’re not surprised to see that the worst example on that list comes from California, which is in a race with Illinois to see which state can become the Greece of America.

Well, the Golden State has a new über-bureaucrat. Here are some of the jaw-dropping details from a Bloomberg report.

The numbers are even larger in California, where a state psychiatrist was paid $822,000, a highway patrol officer collected $484,000 in pay and pension benefits and 17 employees got checks of more than $200,000 for unused vacation and leave. The best-paid staff in other states earned far less for the same work, according to the data.

Wow, $822,000 for a state psychiatrist. Not bad for government work. So what is Governor Jerry Brown doing to fix the mess? As you might expect, he’s part of the problem.

…the state’s highest-paid employees make far more than comparable workers elsewhere in almost all job and wage categories, from public safety to health care, base pay to overtime. …California has set a pattern of lax management, inefficient operations and out-of-control costs. …In California, Governor Jerry Brown hasn’t curbed overtime expenses that lead the 12 largest states or limited payments for accumulated vacation time that allowed one employee to collect $609,000 at retirement in 2011. …Last year, Brown waived a cap on accrued leave for prison guards while granting them additional paid days off. California’s liability for the unused leave of its state workers has more than doubled in eight years, to $3.9 billion in 2011, from $1.4 billion in 2003, according to the state’s annual financial reports. …The per-worker costs of delivering services in California vastly exceed those even in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio.

Cartoon California Promised LandActually, it’s not just that he’s part of the problem. He’s making things worse, having seduced voters into approving a ballot measure to dramatically increase the tax burden on the upper-income taxpayers.

I suppose the silver lining to that dark cloud is that many bureaucrats now rank as part of the top 1 percent, so they’ll have to recycle some of their loot back to the political vultures in Sacramento.

But the biggest impact of the tax hike—as shown in the Ramirez cartoon—will be to accelerate the shift of entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners to states that don’t steal as much. Indeed, a study from the Manhattan Institute looks at the exodus to lower-tax states.

The data also reveal the motives that drive individuals and businesses to leave California. One of these, of course, is work. …Taxation also appears to be a factor, especially as it contributes to the business climate and, in turn, jobs. Most of the destination states favored by Californians have lower taxes. States that have gained the most at California’s expense are rated as having better business climates. The data suggest that many cost drivers—taxes, regulations, the high price of housing and commercial real estate, costly electricity, union power, and high labor costs—are prompting businesses to locate outside California, thus helping to drive the exodus.

Yet another example of why tax competition is such an important force for economic liberalization. It punishes governments that are too greedy and gives taxpayers a chance to protect their property from the looter class.

Suffer the Little Children

But maybe think twice before taking them as authorities on complex environmental and economic matters.

The used lunch trays Emily Fox took home about four years ago from the loading dock outside her elementary school were gross, some still plastered with ketchup. Emily stacked the trays in piles of 10. She wanted to know just how many polystyrene lunch trays Piney Branch Elementary School students went through in a day.  “Three hundred and twenty-five,” said Emily, now 12…

On Friday, the Hermosa Beach City School District in Southern California started replacing foam trays with recycled paper trays once a week, thanks in part to the advocacy of Max Riley, a fourth-grader at Hermosa Valley School, and his sister Reece, a second-grader.

“No Foam Friday” will run through the end of the school year, and the siblings say they’re pushing for permanent change.

Max said he worries about the health repercussions of littering Earth with foam.

Where’s All the TAG Bank Lending?

The Senate is poised to vote on extending FDIC’s Transaction Account Guarantee (TAG) program, which offers government deposit insurance for bank accounts over $250,000.  I’ve written elsewhere why this program is a big bank bailout that benefits mainly large account-holders.

I suspect the banks that are lobbying for an extension of TAG are offering all sorts of claims that not extending TAG would hurt the economy by reducing lending.  Unfortunately for those banks there is little evidence that TAG resulted in any new net lending.

Before TAG was created, federal depositories (banks and thrifts), held about $8.2 trillion in total deposits.  They also held about $7.6 trillion in net loans and leases.  This makes for a ratio of about 93%.  Today that ratio is just above 70% (see chart).  While deposits increased during the crisis, and after the creation of TAG, by over $2 trillion, net loans and leases actually fell in $7.4 trillion.  Whatever banks are doing with all these extra deposits, one thing they aren’t do is much new net lending.

For the most part banks are using TAG deposits to either play in the derivatives market (think JP’s London Whale) or to purchase large amounts of Treasuries and Fannie/Freddie securities.  We would be far better off if this lending flowed to businesses rather than government.  Banks have also used TAG to reduce their subordinated debt, further decreasing market discipline.

Much of TAG came at the expense of the money market mutual funds (MMMF).  One of the reasons for Treasury’s MMMF guarantee program was actually to off-set the impact of TAG.  Now that the (explicit) guarantee of MMMF is gone, we should end TAG.  Shifting funds from MMMF to TAG has also resulted in significant disruptions to the commercial paper market, furthering harming business investment.  We should start eliminating the various government guarantees of the banking system, starting with TAG.