Archives: 03/2014

The Federal Spying Budget

The latest revelations regarding the NSA’s bulk data collection illustrate the vastness of the government’s spying apparatus. That vastness costs taxpayers a lot of money.

The cost of the federal spy budget used to be secret, which was a bizarre thing for a government that is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in recent years, policymakers have taken a step toward transparency and released figures on total intelligence spending.

The federal spy budget consists of spending on the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and the Military Intelligence Program (MIP). The Federation of American Scientists has summarized the data. In 2013 the NIP and MIP cost $68 billion. (For 2015, the administration is requesting $46 billion for the NIP and $13 billion for the MIP.)

Even by Washington standards, $68 billion is a lot of money. The chart shows that the spy budget is two-thirds as large as the $96 billion Americans spend on state and local policing activities. And the spy budget is far larger than spending on state and local fire activities ($42 billion), the NASA budget ($17 billion), and the National Park Service budget ($3 billion). (Police and fire data are for 2011; NASA and Park Service data are for 2013.)

What do the NIP and MIP spend so much money on? I assume it’s mainly the wages and benefits of their skilled workers, plus lots of spending on computers, drones, and other technology.

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

Frank Underwood Wants a Subsidy

House of Cards is a Netflix television series about a powerful, manipulative politician who gets what he wants with little regard for the public good. Here’s an example:

“House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey is booked to appear in Annapolis on Friday night as the fate of a tax credit that has benefited the production of his Netflix series hangs in the balance.

Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis-based lobbyist for the show, has invited the entire Maryland General Assembly to a local wine bar to meet the two-time Academy Award winner who plays the scheming Vice President Frank Underwood in the series. An invitation describes the event as “an evening of Annapolis, D.C. and Hollywood.”…

The visit is scheduled just a few days after the Senate voted to increase the amount the state can spend next year, to $18.5 million, on a tax credit that rewards movie and television production companies that choose to film in Maryland. “House of Cards” has been the biggest beneficiary in recent years.

The House of Delegates has yet to act on the bill, with about two and a half weeks remaining in this year’s 90-day legislative session in Maryland. Evans said he has been encouraged by recent meetings with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and other key delegates.

A few weeks before the second season of “House of Cards” debuted online, the show’s production company sent letters to Busch and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) making clear they could film elsewhere if the debate over the tax credit didn’t end well.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and conspiracy between the rich, the famous, and the powerful against the unorganized taxpayers. A perfect House of Cards story.

The Tax Foundation has been covering film tax credits in general and the House of Cards saga in particular. The Mackinac Center has been campaigning against Michigan’s film tax credits, and Gov. Rick Snyder has tried to rein in the program. But it’s hard to beat Frank Underwood.

 

RIP Tonie Nathan, the First Woman to Receive an Electoral Vote

Tonie NathanTheodora (Tonie) Nathan, the 1972 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee who became the first woman in American history to receive an electoral vote, died Thursday at 91.

Tonie Nathan was a radio-television producer in Eugene, Ore., when she attended the first presidential nominating convention of the Libertarian Party in 1972. She was selected to run for vice president with presidential candidate and philosophy professor John Hospers. Although the ticket received only 3,671 official votes, Virginia elector Roger L. MacBride chose to vote for Hospers and Nathan rather than Nixon and Agnew, thus making Nathan the first woman in American history to receive an electoral vote. MacBride, an author and former legislator, had been elected on the Republican slate. As I wrote in Liberty magazine when he died in 1995, “MacBride became a ‘faithless elector’—faithless to Nixon and Agnew, anyway, but faithful to the constitutional principles Rose [Wilder] Lane had instilled in him.”

Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, writes:

It is a shame that her historical status for the advancement of woman’s role in what had been entirely a man’s world has been little noted or long remembered, mostly I suspect because the Libertarian Party is not much respected by institutional feminism (though it should be).

Hospers-Nathan buttonNathan was also the first Jewish person to receive an electoral vote.

After her vice-presidential run, she ran for office as a Libertarian candidate during the 1970s through the 1990s for numerous offices, vigorously though never successfully. In the 1980 U.S. Senate election in Oregon, Nathan participated in three statewide television debates with incumbebt Bob Packwood (R) and then–state senator Ted Kulongoski (D). She served as national vice-chair of the Libertarian Party, and at the 2012 Libertarian National Convention she announced former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as the presidential nominee. She founded the Association of Libertarian Feminists in 1973 and served as its chair.

Note: Premiering tonight on Showtime is a new documentary about Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee, whom many people would likely identify as the first woman to receive an electoral vote.

Conspiring to Be Civil

A few days ago, a reporter asked me to comment on a conference video in which I appeared. The event was four or five years ago, but the Florida teachers’ union must have just discovered the video and apparently was circulating it to the media. Couched as a smoking gun, it was purported to reveal school choice advocates’ “true intentions.” But the media, apart from some left-leaning Florida bloggers, seem to have concluded it was wasn’t newsworthy (not enough hand-wringing or maniacal laughter, I suppose).

That’s really too bad, because upon rewatching the clips that the union selected, I’m really pleased to have attention drawn to them. Several deal with the strongest argument that can be leveled at government-funded school choice: that, like state-run schools, it can force taxpayers to pay for the promotion of ideas that violate their convictions, leading to social conflict.

Here’s my take on how to address that problem:

Litt on Warrants for Searching American Communications: Either Misleading or Terrifying

At a hearing Wednesday, members of the Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board asked intelligence official Robert Litt a crucial question: If the sweeping general warrants authorized by the FISA Amendments Act are only supposed to be used for “targeting” foreigners for surveillance, shouldn’t a judicial warrant be necessary before NSA can intentionally dig through its massive database of intercepts for Americans’ communications? Otherwise, after all, such “backdoor searches”—currently allowed under NSA guidelines—seem a dangerous loophole that enables an end-run around the rules that would require court approval to directly target an American’s communications for interception.

Litt’s answer was either extremely misleading or extremely disturbing. He told the oversight board that the number of annual queries to the intercept database was “considerably larger” than the few hundred analysts currently run against NSA’s vast archive of telephony metadata records.  That would make the “operational burden” of a warrant requirement utterly impractical, Litt asserted, and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court  “would be extremely unhappy if they were required to approve every such query.”

Now, it’s possible that Litt was talking about the total number of queries analysts run against the database of intercepted communications as they sift through it for nuggets of foreign intelligence.  No doubt that number is very large indeed. But it’s also utterly irrelevant to the question PCLOB was asking. Nobody, after all, is suggesting that a warrant be required for every query of NSA’s databases—including queries for topical keywords or “selectors” associated with known foreign intelligence targets.  The question, rather, was whether a warrant should be required for the subset of those queries involving the name or e-mail address of a particular U.S. person—the very query terms that the government would be forbidden from using as selectors to task interception without first obtaining a particularized, probable cause warrant.  If Litt was answering that question by alluding to the total number of queries, then his answer had little bearing on what the PCLOB was trying to discover, and would vastly overstate the practical burden of such a requirement—seriously misleading overseers about the feasibility of a proposed civil liberties safeguard. Litt ought to correct the record if that is what he meant.

What would be hugely more disturbing, however, is if Litt really was giving an answer pertinent to the question he was asked.  In that case, he would be representing that NSA runs “considerably more” than a few hundred annual queries for the names and e-mail addresses of specific U.S. persons, against a database of private communications gathered via general warrants—an authority justified on the premise that it is “targeted” exclusively at non-Americans located outside the United States. That would suggest that the blanket surveillance authority created by §702 of the FISA Amendments Act is precisely what civil libertarians feared: A Trojan Horse mechanism for spying on Americans using the pretext of “foreign targeting.”

In short, either added safeguards on NSA’s use of the §702 database are far more feasible than Litt led the PCLOB to believe, or the authority is being used in a way that circumvents constitutional and statutory protections for Americans’ communications on a chilling scale. Litt should clarify which it is—and then Congress should hasten to reform §702 accordingly.

Death Of An Honest Taxman

The New York Times notes the death at age 100 in Atlanta of Randolph Thrower, “a Republican lawyer who headed the IRS under President Richard M. Nixon from 1969 to 1971 before losing his job for resisting White House efforts to punish its enemies through tax audits.” When White House staffers began pressuring Mr. Thrower to apply hostile tax scrutiny to the Administration’s critics, including journalists and Senators, he assumed President Nixon had no knowledge of what was happening and requested a meeting with the chief executive so as to warn him. Instead he was summarily fired, with the White House putting out the story that Thrower had departed “for personal reasons.”

In White House tapes and memos released in later years, Nixon described the situation differently. “May I simply reiterate for the record that I wish Randolph Thrower, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, removed at the earliest feasible opportunity,” he wrote on Jan. 21, 1971, five days before the White House announced that Mr. Thrower was stepping down.

That May, as the administration continued to look for a successor to Mr. Thrower, Nixon made clear what kind of IRS commissioner he wanted. “I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch,” he was recorded as saying, “that he will do what he is told, that every income tax return I want to see I see” and “that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

It’s a good thing Nixon isn’t in power any more.