Archives: November, 2013

Government: The Bigger, the Leakier

One of the many problems with Big Government is that it abuses our privacy. The potential for abuse has been greatly heightened in the information age. The problem is not just that government officials themselves can abuse the vast troves of data that they collect, but that thieves, hackers, organized crime, and other private actors can gain access as well.

Federal bureaucracies are collecting vast amounts of data and storing it in giant sieves. Officials promise to put safety procedures in place, but those procedures always fall short because the government is so large and vulnerable to human failure. Two stories in the Washington Post today highlight the problems.

One story solves the mystery of how Edward Snowden was able to walk away with tens of thousands of secret NSA documents. As a computer systems administrator, he apparently just asked a couple of dozen agency employees for their log in passwords.

Another story describes how a defense contractor in Asia allegedly used moles in the U.S. Navy Department to gain access to sensitive data about contracts, ship movements, and internal investigations. The contractor used old-fashioned tools to prey on the weaknesses of Navy officials: money and prostitutes. The leaks happened “despite past pledges by the Pentagon to strengthen oversight,” notes the Post.

The huge data data collection effort to support Obamacare is another threat. Despite government promises about ensuring privacy, we now know that the administration skipped crucial security and privacy testing as it rushed to launch the health website.  

Politicians and officials will keep promising to fix things, but as long as the government is a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up and storing vast troves of data, sensitive information will leak. Another dimension of risk is the increased proclivity of our government to share tax, financial, security, and intelligence data with other governments.

Flight Not an Option in Public School Wars

People viciously go for each other’s throats when they’re trying to help “the children.” At least, according to a new Politico article, that’s the case over the last several years, with demonization increasingly the weapon of choice when it comes to education politics.

Several pragaraphs in, the piece gets to the inflamed heart of the problem:

The policies the two sides fight over are high-stakes indeed. They drive hundreds of billions in public spending. They could impact millions of union  jobs and millions in corporate profits. And they will have an enormous impact on where, how and what the next generation learns.

That may be why the hostility seems to be escalating.

Public schooling politics is a zero-sum game: all people pay in, but only those with political power get control. That is exactly why public schools drive such vitriol and anger. It is like politics generally, but with the emotionally charged, added stakes that people’s children and, often, their basic values, hang in the balance. Making matters worse is that basic decisions about crucial questions—including who is held “accountable,” how, and what children will learn—have for roughly 50 years been increasingly made at the federal level. As a result, people who want something different can’t move to another district or even state to get the education they want. There is no more flight. There is only fight.

Of course, painful conflict caused by public schools is nothing new, even if nationalization is making it worse and more visible. Familiarizing oneself with the history of American education makes clear just how divisive public schooling has been. For instance, see the Philadelphia “Bible Riots,” or the textbook war in Kanawha County, WV. And just because something is local- or state-controlled doesn’t free it from conflict. Cato’s still-under-construction public schooling “battle map” pinpoints well over 800—and growing—contemporary battles over basic values and rights fought at the school, district, and state levels. And that doesn’t include constant combat over budgets, teacher evaluations, school start times, math curricula, and on and on.

Ultimately, understanding why public schools are the source of unceasing conflict—and why it worsens the more that control is centralized—requires the simplest of logic: One government school system cannot possibly serve all, diverse people equally. And the higher decision-making goes, the more diversity the monolithic system encompasses.  

Government schooling essentially guarantees war without end, and increasing centralization only puts peace further out of reach.

A “Bad” Deal Was Always Better than No Deal, and We Should Be Thankful if We Get One

The foreign policy news of the day is the apparent deal being reached in Geneva between Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). What’s particularly striking is the pre-spin being offered by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his ideological fellow-travelers in Washington.

To be clear: we do not know the precise terms of the deal being hammered out. The sketchy details that have been leaked make clear that both sides are taking small steps, as would be expected. Iran is not shuttering its nuclear enrichment program, or even freezing enrichment entirely, as the UN Security Council demanded it do in several resolutions. Similarly, the P5+1 is not normalizing economic relations with Iran, rescinding the spider web of sanctions that is strangling Iran.

Iran

None of this has stopped Iran hawks from asserting, without evidence, that the deal is a disaster for the world and a coup for Iran. Netanyahu was most succinct, labeling the deal—again, not having seen its terms—to be “the deal of the century” for Iran and a bad deal for the rest of the world.

Similarly, Danielle Pletka at AEI asks some pertinent questions about the exact terms of what was agreed to then declares, without answering them, that the deal is “lousy.” By her own one-sided accounting, what the Iranians will receive is “not clear” but she asserts, in spite of her admissions, that they will give “nothing.”

What’s happened here is that any gettable deal has been framed as “bad,” and the administration, while disagreeing with that framing, has agreed that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” Netanyahu actually had a pretty solid debating point when he tried to scuttle the early feelers of this diplomatic opening by comparing a prospective deal to the deal brokered with North Korea. The parallels there are not ones that pro-diplomacy doves like very much, for good reason.

So let’s concede: this interim deal is not reliving old glories on the decks of the Missouri. It’s not a complete, irreversible end of the problem posed by Iran’s nuclear program. What hawkish observers fail to understand is that there is no such solution, through diplomacy, military strikes, or otherwise.

Thus the question was never whether this deal could provide Netanyahu’s desiderata: the shipping out of all enriched uranium, the destruction of Fordow and Arak, and an end to Iran’s pursuit of enrichment altogether. Nobody, perhaps even including Netanyahu thought that was possible. Given his various public statements, Netanyahu seemed to think any deal was a bad deal.

So yes, it’s not time to pop champagne corks and forget the world, nor time to throw a tantrum. A prospective interim deal would be a small, but very important, step in the right direction. Given the disaster that would be a war in Iran, we should take this small step and see if it can be built on. As Amos Yadlin, head of the Israel Institute for National Security Studies remarked, “There needs to be a scrutiny of the details before determining whether the ‘holy of holies’ was destroyed today.” One hopes Netanyahu, and hawks in Washington, will come to agree.

No Constitutional Authority for Federal Hate Crime Law

Identified by William Blackstone as a universal maxim of the common law, the protection against double jeopardy—being tried twice for the same crime—has been a part of American law since even before it was enshrined in the Constitution.  While the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause (“nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”) prohibits successive prosecutions for the same offense, courts have recognized a “dual sovereignty” exception, which permits the federal government to prosecute a federal crime after completion of a state prosecution over the same conduct. Originally a small exception intended to enable Prohibition-related prosecutions, the dual sovereignty exception has widened vastly to accommodate the glut of federal crimes established since that time. 

But there are limits on such prosecutions: the federal government must have legitimate jurisdiction over the crime being prosecuted. In Hatch v. United States, William Hatch is challenging the use of the federal Hate Crime Prevention Act to federally re-prosecute him for an attack on a disabled Navajo man for which he was already convicted under New Mexico state law.

Congress passed the HCPA pursuant to Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery, which authority the Supreme Court has extended to eliminating the “badges and incidents” of slavery. The lower federal courts upheld the HCPA’s constitutionality, deferring to Congress’s power to “rationally determine” what the badges and incidents of slavery are. In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, Hatch argues that the HCPA intrudes on the states’ police power to prosecute local crimes and that Congress cannot be the judge of its own powers. In City of Boerne v. Flores  (1997), for example, the Supreme Court noted that Congress may not pass “general legislation upon the rights of the citizen.”

Joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, Cato has filed a brief supporting Hatch’s petition. We argue that the use of hate-crime laws to sweep intra-state criminal activity into federal court has nothing to do with stamping out slavery and that the Court should decide the legitimacy of these laws before a more highly publicized and politicized case comes along and makes that task even harder. Not only are federal hate-crime laws constitutionally unsound, but, as George Zimmerman’s recent trial highlighted, they invite people dissatisfied with a state-court outcome to demand that the government re-try unpopular defendants. The administration of justice and the protections of the Double Jeopardy Clause shouldn’t be subject to the whims of public pressure and racial politics.

The Sugar Program Is Central Planning

House and Senate negotiators are working out details of a big farm bill that may pass this year. No industry in America is as coddled as farming, and no industry is as centrally planned from Washington. The federal sugar program is perhaps the most Soviet of all. Here’s a sketch of the sugar program, which the supposedly conservative, tea party-dominated lower chamber may soon ratify:

  • Purpose. The federal sugar program is designed to enrich sugar producers, such as the wealthy Fanjuls, and rip off sugar consumers by keeping domestic prices artificially high. In recent decades, U.S. sugar prices have often been two or more times world prices. The federal government achieves that result by price guarantees, trade restrictions, production quotas, and ethanol giveaways.
  • Guaranteed Prices. The Department of Agriculture runs a complex loan program to support sugar prices. Essentially, the government promises to buy sugar from processors at a set price per pound. Processors can sell to the government, or they can sell in the marketplace if the (manipulated) market price is higher.
  • Trade Restrictions. Complex import barriers called “tariff rate quotas” help to maintain high domestic sugar prices. Imports are restricted to about one quarter of the U.S. market, and each foreign country (except Mexico) is allocated a particular share of imports.
  • Production Quotas. The government imposes quotas, or “marketing allotments,” on U.S. producers. The United States Department of Agriculture decides what total U.S. sugar production ought to be and then allots quotas to beet and cane sugar producers. Most sugar beet production is in Minnesota, Idaho, North Dakota, Michigan, and California. Most sugar cane production is in Florida and Louisiana.
  • Ethanol Giveaway. If prices fall below certain levels, the USDA is required to fire up a sugar-for-ethanol program to channel sugar away from the food industry.

The USDA is supposed to run the sugar program at no taxpayer cost, which makes the central planning even trickier. The agency must fiddle to adjust imports, quotas, and the ethanol giveaway to optimally fatten the wallets of sugar producers, while not allowing the domestic (manipulated) market price to fall so low as to impose taxpayer costs.

A possible wrench in the works of the current farm bill is that the sugar program is on track to cost taxpayers perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars this year (see here and here). So if conservatives in Congress vote for an unreformed sugar program this year, they would be not only voting for central planning, corporate welfare, higher consumer prices, harm to U.S. food manufacturers, and environmental damage, they would be voting for higher taxes as well.

The Congressional Research Service gives a brief overview of the central planning here. You can see that sugar beets are allotted exactly 54.35 percent of production (definitely not 54.34 or 54.36), and that federal planners have decreed that the just price (“loan rate”) for sugar cane is 18.75 cents per pound (not 18.74 or 18.76). 

The USDA has more on the program here. This table shows that the Fanjuls’ Florida Crystals company received a quota in 2013 of exactly 910,521 tons. So 910,521 is certainly too little and 910,522 is absolutely too much. Now if only the planners at HHS had used such precision in designing the Obamacare website! 

For more on the sugar racket, see here and here.

U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan: A Delicate, Troublesome Issue

The Taiwan issue, which was a source of repeated tension between Washington and Beijing for decades, has been mercifully quiet for the past five years. Ma Ying-Jeou’s election as Taiwan’s president in 2008 marked the onset of a decidedly more conciliatory approach toward the mainland than the policies his immediate predecessors pursued, and U.S. leaders were relieved to put the contentious matter of the island’s status on the diplomatic back burner. But, as I discuss in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, there are now signs that the period of quiescence may be coming to an end.

Because of domestic political reasons, as well as growing unease about Beijing’s intentions, Ma’s government is pressing the United States to sell an assortment of modern weaponry, including advanced versions of the F-16 fighter. The Obama administration is also under mounting pressure from Taiwan’s friends in Congress to take that step and increase military support for Taipei in other respects. House members inserted an amendment in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act urging President Obama to sell Taipei the F-16 models Ma’s government sought. Reports also circulated in Taiwan that a senior Republican, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, assured Taiwanese officials during a visit to the island earlier this year that the United States would approve the sale of Apache attack helicopters in 2014 and Patriot missiles in 2015.

However, arms sales of any sort to Taipei have long been a major irritant in U.S.-China relations. Chinese leaders have never wavered in their contention that Taiwan is rightfully a part of China, and they view U.S. weapons sales as provocative. Beijing is especially wrathful about transfers of modern weapons with offensive potential. Selling the advanced F-16 models, the Apaches, or the Patriots would likely produce a surge in bilateral tensions. Washington and Beijing are already on poor terms regarding other issues, especially the Obama administration’s unsubtle support for East Asian countries challenging China’s territorial claims in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

U.S. officials need to proceed with considerable caution on the issue of arms sales. Understandably, Washington would like to see Taiwan maintain its de facto independence and remain out of Beijing’s political orbit. But a cordial relationship with China is important to America, both strategically and economically. The last thing this country needs is a renewed crisis in East Asia.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in October

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we’ve selected the worst case for October:

So for October, it was Atlantic City Police Officer Sterling Wheaton. Recall that David Castellani had exchanged words with police outside a casino. Those officers took Castellani to the ground. Officer Wheaton then arrives on the scene and he immediately releases his dog to attack Castellani, who is still on the ground. The dog proceeds to bite Castellani’s head and neck.

The runner up goes to the Houston police officer who raped a handcuffed woman in the backseat of his patrol car. Responding to a fender bender, officer Adan Carranza handcuffed and arrested the victim and then waited for the other drivers involved in the accident to leave. The victim said Carranza, wearing his gun and badge, then raped her in the back of the patrol car before driving her to jail for a reckless driving charge. DNA evidence from the victim and back seat confirm the allegations, and Carranza has pled guilty—but only to attempted sexual assault. Carranza’s lawyer is hopeful his client will be paroled after only two or three years of his ten year sentence, of which he could serve as little as six months if a judge agrees to “shock probation.” One has to wonder how many rapists get that kind of deal.