Tag: New York Times

A Bum Rap for Limited Government

Every so often an editorial comes along that is so obtuse that you wonder if it came from human hand. I allude, not surprisingly, to the item in this morning’s New York Times, “Limits of Libertarianism,” which arises from the kerfuffle over Rand Paul’s critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for its undermining the private right to freedom of association. 

The editorial’s main target, however, lies beyond the Paul senatorial campaign. It’s the tea party movement and its libertarian, limited government themes. But from the start the Times conflates limited government with anti government. They’re not the same. More broadly, the editorial shows beyond doubt that the Times, ever the friend of “enlightened government,” finds danger lurking mostly in the private sector. (One wonders just how it is that those not-to-be-trusted private actors become so quickly enlightened once they get their hands on monopoly government power.) 

Thus, we’re told that the libertarian theory of private liberty has “roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society.” Really? What history have the scribes at the Times been reading? Their next line, presumably supporting that claim, only compounds the mystery: “The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.” Is that what slavery was, private discrimination, to be corrected by government?

Apparently, because following immediately is the editorialists’ main point: “It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression.”

Where to begin. Skip the Depression point; it’s been so often refuted that one does so again only with embarrassment for its authors. The first claim, however, warrants more than passing attention. Contending that only government power saved us from slavery and Jim Crow, it ignores the role of private power – the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement – that brought about that government power. More important, it invites us to believe that government had little or nothing to do with slavery and Jim Crow in the first place when in truth we would have had neither without government’s creation of those legal institutions, with legal sanctions that kept them in place. Indeed, it is limited government, government limited to securing our rights, that is the surest guarantee against those twin evils.

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

First, in an effort to preempt any suggestion that China’s protectionism is nothing exceptional and can be remedied through the World Trade Organization and other channels, McGregor offers this blanket statement: “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules.”  I realize that op-ed writing forces one to economize on words, but that statement, which serves as McGregor’s springboard to socialism, cannot suffice for an analysis of the facts.  One of those facts is that the United States has been successful in compelling changes in China’s protectionist practices in all of the formal WTO disputes it has lodged that have been resolved thus far (6 of 8 formal cases have been resolved).  If China violates the agreed rules of trade, and its actions impair benefits or impose costs on U.S. interests that are too large to ignore, pursuing a WTO case is a legitimate and proven channel of resolution. Chinese protectionism can be addressed without the radical changes McGregor counsels. 

But I think McGregor—sharing the tactics of other in the media and politics—exploits public angst over a rising China to promote his idea as the obvious and only solution to what he sells as a rapidly-metastasizing problem.  McGregor argues that China is aiming to create national champions through subsidies and other preferential policies, while charging foreign companies admission to its market in the form of technology transfer, joint-venturing requirements, and local content rules.  McGregor claims, that this appropriation of foreign technology will be used to “create Chinese ‘indigenous innovations’ that will come back at us globally.”  Ultimately, McGregor fears that “American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.”

It is telling that McGregor doesn’t consider U.S. government expropriation of those companies’ technology assets as planting the seeds of their own destruction.  Indeed, it is nothing short of expropriation when technology that is owned by individual companies in the private sector, making unique decisions to improve their own bottom-lines on behalf of their own shareholders is suddenly subject to the questions McGregor wants answered: What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?  Those questions, let alone the answers, imply that the U.S. government should have at least de facto ownership and control over these privately-held technology assets.

What is wrong with allowing each of these companies to decide for themselves whether they want to license or transfer some of their technology to Chinese companies, as the price of doing business in China?  Some will, some won’t, but the presupposition that those who do are selling the golden goose is not based on fact.  Let companies decide for themselves how to use their resources, and don’t treat industry as a monolith, as in “What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?” 

Had we tried to answer and implement the answer to that question in the face the Japanese “threat” two decade ago, we’d be bereft of some of the most ingenious technological breakthroughs and the hundreds of industries and thousands of products that “our system of almost no national economic planning” has yielded.

When we peel away the chicken-little rhetoric, when we dispense with neo-Rahm Emanualism (“Never manufacture a good crisis and then let it go to waste”), when cooler heads and analytical minds prevail, the economic question boils down to this: What has been more successful at creating growth, central planning or decentralized dynamism?  For both China and the United States, it has been the latter. 

My bet is that China’s re-embrace of greater central planning will be brief, as it wastes resources, yields few -if any- national champions, and limits innovation.  For similar reasons, U.S. opinion leaders will eschew central planning, as well.

With Liberal Editorial Pages Like These…

who needs conservative editorial pages?

It’s rather sad that the nation’s leading liberal editorial page dedicates an editorial to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ milquetoast call for less-huge defense spending, but can only muster dissembling and throat-clearing.

The Times mentions the “feeding frenzy at the Pentagon budget trough” since 9/11.  It notes that defense spending has roughly doubled in the last decade.  It admits that the recent QDR “failed to start making the hard choices” about defense spending.

But there’s almost nothing of substance in the Times editorial about what the United States should be doing to its military budget.  Nonsensically, it argues that as the U.S. gets out of Iraq and Afghanistan, “Washington will have to consider trimming troop strength, beginning with the Navy and the Air Force.”  But why wait?  The Navy and Air Force have played almost no role in the wars in those two countries.  If the Navy and Air Force should be undergoing personnel cuts, Iraq and Afghanistan provide no reason to hold off, and arguably provide reason to hurry up in order to free up scarce resources in order to “win the wars we’re in,” as Gates is fond of saying.

Conservative editorial pages bang away on their war/military spending/nationalism drum all the time, helping to embed militarism in conservative identity.  Liberals need cues here, too: is it okay for liberals to be advocating cuts in defense spending?  Not only is it okay, but should they do so?  The Times had an opportunity to give its views on these questions in this editorial, and it shrugged.

Internet Regulation: How About This Ad Hominem?

The New York Times starts its commentary on proposed Internet regulations with a clever ad hominem argument: “The Republican attack on the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to classify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service sounded a lot like the G.O.P. talking points on health care reform.”

The GOP are being like themselves. Accordingly, Times readers should think their viewpoint is yucky. It’s not the most substantive argument you’ll come across today.

There are good reasons not to encumber the Internet with regulations designed for the telephone system. Here are four: The Internet is not like the telephone system, and the FCC  doesn’t have the institutional ability to manage a changing, competitive system of networks. Extending “universal service” telephone taxes to the Internet will drive down adoption and frustrate universal service goals. The FCC is subject to capture by the very interests from which the Times thinks regulation would “protect.” The Internet’s large cadre of technologists and active consumers will do a better job than the FCC of protecting consumers’ interests. 

But ad hominem is more fun. So let’s ask why the New York Times didn’t disclose that, as a content provider, it has a dog in the fight? Net neutrality regulation would act as a subsidy to content providers like the Times, ultimately paid by consumers as higher prices for Internet access.

NYT: Attorneys General Advance “a Credible Theory for Eviscerating” ObamaCare

The New York Times‘ Kevin Sack reports on the legal challenge to ObamaCare’s individual mandate launched by 20 state attorneys general:

Some legal scholars, including some who normally lean to the left, believe the states have identified the law’s weak spot and devised a credible theory for eviscerating it…

Jonathan Turley, who teaches at George Washington University Law School, said that if forced to bet, he would predict that the courts would uphold the health care law. But Mr. Turley said that the federal government’s case was far from open-and-shut, and that he found the arguments against the mandate compelling.

“There are few cases in the history of the court system that have a more significant assertion of authority by the government,” said Mr. Turley, a civil libertarian who acknowledged being strange bedfellows with the conservative theorists behind the lawsuit. “This case, more than any other, may give the court sticker shock in terms of its impact on federalism.”

Supporters claim the individual mandate will pass muster with the Supreme Court because in the past the Court has declared that the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause authorizes Congress to regulate non-commercial activity that affects interstate commerce. Sack writes:

Lawyers for the government will contend that, because of the cost-shifting nature of health insurance, people who do not obtain coverage inevitably affect the pricing and availability of policies for everyone else. That, they will argue, is enough to satisfy the Supreme Court’s test.

But to [the attorneys’ general outside counsel David] Rivkin, the acceptance of that argument would herald an era without limits.

“Every decision you can make as a human being has an economic footprint — whether to procreate, whether to marry,” he said. “To say that is enough for your behavior to be regulated transforms the Commerce Clause into an infinitely capacious font of power, whose exercise is only restricted by the Bill of Rights.”

Sack’s article contains an inaccuracy.  He writes:

Congressional bill writers took steps to immunize the law against constitutional challenge…They labeled the penalty on those who do not obtain coverage an “excise tax,” because such taxes enjoy substantial constitutional protection.

In fact, the law uses the term “excise tax” several times, but never in reference to the penalty for violating the individual mandate.  It describes that penalty solely as a penalty.  (The law does refer to the penalty for violating the employer mandate as a tax, but not an excise tax.)

As my Cato colleague Randy Barnett explains, that means supporters cannot reasonably claim that the individual mandate’s penalty is a tax, because that’s not what Congress approved.  As Cato chairman Bob Levy explains, even if supporters do claim that penalty is a tax, it would be an unconstitutional tax, because it does not fit into any of the categories of taxes the Constitution authorizes Congress to impose.

The “substantial constitutional protections” afforded to excise taxes do not protect the individual mandate.

Making Sense of New TSA Procedures

Since they were announced recently, I’ve been working to make sense of new security procedures that TSA is applying to flights coming into the U.S.

“These new measures utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence along with multiple, random layers of security, both seen and unseen, to more effectively mitigate evolving terrorist threats,” says Secretary Napolitano.

That reveals essentially nothing of what they are, of course. Indeed, “For security reasons, the specific details of the directives are not public.”

But we in the public aren’t so many potted plants. We need to know what they are, both because our freedoms are at stake and because our tax money will be spent on these measures.

Let’s start at the beginning, with identity-based screening and watch-listing in general. A recent report in the New York Times sums it up nicely:

The watch list is actually a succession of lists, beginning with the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, a centralized database of potential suspects.  … [A]bout 10,000 names come in daily through intelligence reports, but … a large percentage are dismissed because they are based on “some combination of circular reporting, poison pens, mistaken identities, lies and so forth.”

Analysts at the counterterrorism center then work with the Terrorist Screening Center of the F.B.I. to add names to what is called the consolidated watch list, which may have any number of consequences for those on it, like questioning by the police during a traffic stop or additional screening crossing the border. That list, in turn, has various subsets, including the no-fly list and the selectee list, which requires passengers to undergo extra screening.

The consolidated list has the names of more than 400,000 people, about 97 percent of them foreigners, while the no-fly and selectee lists have about 6,000 and 20,000, respectively.

After the December 25, 2009 attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam into Detroit, TSA quickly established, then quickly lifted, an oppressive set of rules for travelers, including bans on blankets and on moving about the cabin during the latter stages of flights. In the day or two after a new attempt, security excesses of this kind are forgivable.

But TSA also established identity-based security rules of similar provenance and greater persistence, subjecting people from fourteen countries, mostly Muslim-dominated, to special security screening. This was ham-handed reaction, increasing security against the unlikely follow-on attacker by a tiny margin while driving wedges between the U.S. and people well positioned to help our security efforts.

Former DHS official Stewart Baker recently discussed the change to this policy on the Volokh Conspiracy blog:

The 14-country approach wasn’t a long-term solution.  So some time in January or February, with little fanfare, TSA seems to have begun doing something much more significant.  It borrowed a page from the Customs and Border Protection playbook, looking at all passengers on a flight, running intelligence checks on all of them, and then telling the airlines to give extra screening to the ones that looked risky.

Mark Ambinder lauded the new policy on the Atlantic blog, describing it thusly:

The new policy, for the first time, makes use of actual, vetted intelligence. In addition to the existing names on the “No Fly” and “Selectee” lists, the government will now provide unclassified descriptive information to domestic and international airlines and to foreign governments on a near-real time basis.

Likely, the change is, or is very much like, applying a Customs and Border Patrol program called ATS-P (Automated Targeting System - Passenger) to air travel screening.

“[ATS-P] compares Passenger Name Record (PNR) and information in [various] databases against lookouts and patterns of suspicious activity identified by analysts based upon past investigations and intelligence,” says this Congressional Research Service report.

“It was through application of the ATS-P that CBP officers at the National Targeting Center selected Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate an explosive device on board Northwest Flight 253 on December 25, 2009, for further questioning upon his arrival at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.”

Is using ATS-P or something like it an improvement in the way airline security is being done? It probably is.

A watch-list works by comparing the names of travelers to the names of people that intelligence has deemed concerning. To simplify, the logic looks like something like this:

If first name=”Cat” (or variants) and last name=”Stevens”, then *flag!*

Using intelligence directly just broadens the identifiers you use, so the comparison (again simplified) might look something like this:

If biography contains “traveled in Yemen” or “Nigerian student” or “consorted with extremists”, then *flag!*

The ability to flag a potential terrorist with identifiers beyond name is a potential improvement. Such a screening system would be more flexible than one that used purely name-based matching. But using more identifiers isn’t automatically better.

The goal—unchanged—is to minimize both false positives and false negatives—that is, people flagged as potential terrorists who are not terrorists, and people not flagged as terrorists who are terrorists. A certain number of false positives are acceptable if that avoids false negatives, but a huge number of false positives will just waste resources relative to the margin of security the screening system creates. Given the overall paucity of terrorists—which is otherwise a good thing—it’s very easy to waste resources on screening.

I used the name “Cat Stevens” above because it’s one of several well known examples of logic that caused false positives. Utterly simplistic identifiers like “traveled in Yemen” will also increase false positives dramatically. More subtle combinations of identifiers and logic can do better. The questions are how far they increase false positives, and whether the logic is built on enough information to produce true positives.

So far as we know, ATS-P has never flagged a terrorist before it flagged the underwear bomber. DHS officials tried once to spin up a case in which ATS-P flagged someone who was involved in an Iraq car-bombing after being excluded from the U.S. However, I believe, as I suggested two years ago, that ATS-P flagged him as a likely visa overstayer and not as a terror threat. He may not have been a terror threat when flagged, as some reports have it that he descended into terrorism after being excluded from the U.S. This makes the incident at best an example of luck rather than skill. That I know of, nobody with knowledge of the incident has ever disputed my theory, which I think they would have done if they could.

The fact that ATS-P flagged one terrorist is poor evidence that it will “work” going forward. The program “working” in this case means that it finds true terrorists without flagging an unacceptable/overly costly number of non-terrorists.

Of course, different people are willing to accept different levels of cost to exclude terrorists from airplanes. I think I have come up with a good way to measure the benefits of screening systems like this so that costs and benefits can be compared, and the conversation can be focused.

Assume a motivated attacker that would eventually succeed. By approximating the amount of damage the attack might do and how long it would take to defeat the security measure, one can roughly estimate its value.

Say, for example, that a particular attack might cause one million dollars in damage. Delaying it for a year is worth $50,000 at a 5% interest rate. Delaying for a month an attack that would cause $10 billion in damage is worth about $42 million.

(I think it is fair to assume that any major attack will happen only once, as it will produce responses that prevent it happening twice. The devastating “commandeering” attack on air travel and infrastructure is instructive. The 9/11 attacks permanently changed the posture of air passengers toward hijackers, and subsequent hardening of cockpit doors has brought the chance of another commandeering attack very close to nil.)

A significant weakness of identity-based screening (which “intelligence-based” screening—if there’s a difference—shares) is that it is testable. A person may learn if he or she is flagged for extra scrutiny simply by traveling a few times. A person who passes through airport security six times in a two-month period and does not receive extra scrutiny can be confident enough on the seventh trip that he or she will not be specially screened. If a person does receive special scrutiny on test runs, that’s notice of being in a suspect category, so someone else should carry out a planned attack.

(“We’ll make traveling often a ground for suspicion!” might go the answer. “False positives,” my rejoinder.)

Assuming that it takes two months more than it otherwise would to recruit and clear a clean-skin terrorist, as Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda franchises have done, the dollar value of screening is $125 million. That is the amount saved (at a 5% interest rate) by delaying for one month an attack costing $15 billion (a RAND corporation estimate of the total cost of a downed airliner, public reactions included).

Let’s say that the agility of having non-name identifiers does improve screening and causes it to take three months rather than two to find a candidate who can pass through the screen. Ignoring the costs of additional false positives (though they could be very high), the value of screening rises to $187.5 million.

(There is plenty of room to push and pull on all these assumptions. I welcome comments on both the assumptions and the logic of using the time-value of delayed attacks to quantify the benefits of security programs.)

A January 2009 study entitled, “Just How Much Does That Cost, Anyway? An Analysis of the Financial Costs and Benefits of the ‘No-Fly’ List,” put the amount expended on “no-fly” listing up to that time at between $300 million and $966 million, with a medium estimate of $536 million. The study estimated yearly costs at between $51 and $161 million, with a medium estimate of $89 million.

The new screening procedures, whose contours are largely speculative, may improve air security by some margin. Their additional costs are probably unknown to anyone yet as false positive rates have yet to be determined, and the system has yet to be calibrated. Under the generous assumption that this change makes it 50% harder to defeat the screening system, the value of screening rises, mitigating the ongoing loss that identity-based screening appears to bring to our overall welfare.

Hey, if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably go one or two more paragraphs…

It’s worth noting how the practice of “security by obscurity” degrades the capacity of outside critics to contribute to the improvement of homeland security programs. Keeping the contours of this system secret requires people like me to guess at what it is and how it works, so my assessment of its strengths and weaknesses is necessarily degraded. As usual, Bruce Schneier has smart things to say on security by obscurity, building on security principles generated over more than 125 years in the field of cryptography.

DHS could tell the public a great deal more about what it is doing. There is no good reason for the security bureaucracy to insist on going mano a mano against terrorism, turning away the many resources of the broader society. The margin of information the United States’ enemies might access would be more than made up for by the strength our security programs would gain from independent criticism and testing.

The Race to Declare Victory

There are some who might say that the New York Times is an unofficial press office for the Obama administration. I’m not going to say that, but a new Times editorial about the federal ”Race to the Top” education contest would certainly support such a characterization.

Today, it just so happens, I have piece on the Daily Caller pointing out how Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems to think that just saying, constantly and unreservedly, that RTTT has worked will forestall any debate about whether that is actually the case. The Times’ editorial uses exactly the same tactic.

First, here’s the big pronouncement that, no matter what actually ends up happening with RTTT, it is already a major success:

[E]ven if the program ended today, it already has had a huge, beneficial effect on the education reform effort, especially at the state and local levels.

Really?

To support it’s coronation of the program, the only statistic the Times offers of even slight heft is that “more than a dozen states adopted new laws intended to comply with the rules of the program.”

That is hardly impressive.

For one thing, there are fifty states – thirteen or so isn’t that many.

More importantly, as I point out in the Daily Caller and have noted previously, it appears that most of these legal changes that have been made will have scant practical impact beyond making states more competitive in the RTTT. And there is little reason to believe that even if the changes are potentially meaningful, states will enforce the changes once the states have gotten – or been turned down for – RTTT funds. After all, evasion of any real accountability has been the name of the game for decades.

But you don’t even need to find the changes that states have actually made to see what a Plastic Man-like reach the Times is making. Just look at the other evidence it cites to support its pronouncement:

To apply for grants, state political leaders and education officials had to confer with the leaders of local school districts in ways that were often new to them. Even for states that don’t get grants, the new contacts and conversations will be helpful as education reform moves forward.

Now, if this $4.35 billion program were called Network to the Top, or Chat to the Top, this might make me feel like a well-rewarded taxpayer (though I’d sure like to see some concrete evidence that it opened up myriad new channels of communication). But this is supposed to be drastically raising standards and achievement, not email volume.

Here’s the other major RTTT accomplishment:

It clearly has broadened interest in the rigorous new national standards proposed last month by the National Governors Association and a group representing state school superintendents. That atmosphere could give the new standards, which reflect what students must know to succeed at college and to find good jobs in the 21st century, a real chance of gaining broad acceptance.

Without even getting into the dubious assumption that the draft Common Core State Standards are of high quality, or the very weak empirical case that national standards are beneficial, this point is actually very damning of Race to the Top.

The only reason that RTTT has “broadened interest” in national standards, as the Times so euphemistically put it, is that states essentially had to sign onto the common standards effort to compete for RTTT dough. If they hadn’t had to, many states probably would not have suddenly developed an ”interest” in the national standards push.

This gives the lie to the logically challenged – but oft-repeated – assertion that adopting national standards is “voluntary” for states: It is voluntary only if they want to give up millions of taxpayer dollars. It also suggests that states are in RTTT for the money, which Secretary Duncan has warned they had better not be.

So has RTTT been a huge success? Absolutely not, and it seems the more its defenders insist that it has, the more clear it becomes that they are wrong.