Tag: political economy

On Breach of Decorum and Government Growth

Last week, the Center for Democracy and Technology changed its position on CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, two times in short succession, easing the way for House passage of a bill profoundly threatening to privacy.

Declan McCullagh of C|Net wrote a story about it called “Advocacy Group Flip-Flops Twice Over CISPA Surveillance Bill.” In it, he quoted me saying: “A lot of people in Washington, D.C. think that working with CDT means working for good values like privacy. But CDT’s number one goal is having a seat at the table. And CDT will negotiate away privacy toward that end.”

That comment netted some interesting reactions. Some were gleeful about this “emperor-has-no-clothes” moment for CDT. To others, I was inappropriately “insulting” to the good people at CDT. This makes the whole thing worthy of further exploration. How could I say something mean like that about an organization whose staff spend so much time working in good faith on improving privacy protections? Some folks there absolutely do. This does not overcome the institutional role CDT often plays, which I have not found so creditable. (More on that below. Far below…)

First, though, let me illustrate how CDT helped smooth the way for passage of the bill:

Congress is nothing if not ignorant about cybersecurity. It has no idea what to do about the myriad problems that exist in securing computers, networks, and data. So its leaders have fixed on “information sharing” as a panacea.

Because the nature and scope of the problems are unknown, the laws that stand in the way of relevant information sharing are unknown. The solution? Scythe down as much law as possible. (What’s actually needed, most likely, is a narrow amendment to ECPA. Nothing of the sort is yet in the offing.) But this creates a privacy problem: an “information sharing” bill could facilitate promiscuous sharing of personal information with government agencies, including the NSA.

On the House floor last week, the leading Republican sponsor of CISPA, Mike Rogers (R-MI), spoke endlessly about privacy and civil liberties, the negotiations, and the process he had undertaken to try to resolve problems in the privacy area. At the close of debate on the rule that would govern debate on the bill, he said:

The amendments that are following here are months of negotiation and work with many organizations—privacy groups. We have worked language with the Center for Democracy and Technology, and they just the other day said they applauded our progress on where we’re going with privacy and civil liberties. So we have included a lot of folks.

You see, just days before, CDT had issued a blog post saying that it would “not oppose the process moving forward in the House.” The full text of that sentence is actually quite precious because it shows how little CDT got in exchange for publicly withdrawing opposition to the bill. Along with citing “good progress,” CDT president and CEO Leslie Harris wrote:

Recognizing the importance of the cybersecurity issue, in deference to the good faith efforts made by Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Ruppersberger, and on the understanding that amendments will be considered by the House to address our concerns, we will not oppose the process moving forward in the House.

Cybersecurity is an important issue—nevermind whether the bill would actually help with it. The leadership of the House Intelligence Committee have acted in good faith. And amendments will evidently be forthcoming in the House. So go ahead and pass a bill not ready to become law, in light of “good progress.”

Then CDT got spun.

As McCullagh tells it:

The bill’s authors seized on CDT’s statement to argue that the anti-CISPA coalition was fragmenting, with an aide to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) sending reporters e-mail this morning, recalled a few minutes later, proclaiming: “CDT Drops Opposition to CISPA as Bill Moves to House Floor.” And the Information Technology Industry Council, which is unabashedly pro-CISPA, said it “applauds” the “agreement between CISPA sponsors and CDT.”

CDT quickly reversed itself, but the damage was done. Chairman Rogers could make an accurate but misleading floor statement omitting the fact that CDT had again reversed itself. This signaled to members of Congress and their staffs—who don’t pay close attention to subtle shifts in the views of organizations like CDT—that the privacy issues were under control. They could vote for CISPA without getting privacy blow-back. Despite furious efforts by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU, the bill passed 248 to 168.

Defenders of CDT will point out—accurately—that it argued laboriously for improvements to the bill. And with the bill’s passage inevitable, that was an essential benefit to the privacy side.

Well, yes and no. To get at that question, let’s talk about how groups represent the public’s interests in Washington, D.C. We’ll design a simplified representation game with the following cast of characters:

  • one powerful legislator, antagonistic to privacy, whose name is “S.R. Veillance”;
  • twenty privacy advocacy groups (Groups A through T); and
  • 20,000 people who rely on these advocacy groups to protect their privacy interests.

At the outset, the 20,000 people divide their privacy “chits”—that is, their donations and their willingness to act politically—equally among the groups. Based on their perceptions of the groups’ actions and relevance, the people re-assign their chits each legislative session.

Mr. Veillance has an anti-privacy bill he would like to get passed, but he knows it will meet resistance if he doesn’t get 2,500 privacy chits to signal that his bill isn’t that bad. If none of the groups give him any privacy chits, his legislation will not pass, so Mr. Veillance goes from group to group bargaining in good faith and signaling that he intends to do all he can to pass his bill. He will reward the groups that work with him by including such groups in future negotiations on future bills. He will penalize the groups that do not by excluding them from future negotiations.

What we have is a game somewhat like the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Though it is in the best interest of the society overall for the groups to cooperate and hold the line against a bill, individual groups can advantage themselves by “defecting” from the interests of all. These defectors will be at the table the next time an anti-privacy bill is negotiated.

Three groups—let’s say Group C, Group D, and Group T—defect from the pack. They make deals with Mr. Veillance to improve his bill, and in exchange they give him their privacy chits. He uses their 3,000 chits to signal to his colleagues that they can vote for the bill without fear of privacy-based repercussions.

At the end of the first round, Mr. Veillance has passed his anti-privacy legislation (though weakened, from his perspective). Groups C, D, and T did improve the bill, making it less privacy-invasive than it otherwise would have been, and they have also positioned themselves to be more relevant to future privacy debates because they will have a seat at the table. Hindsight makes the passage of the bill look inevitable, and CDT looks all the wiser for working with Sir Veillance while others futilely opposed the bill.

Thus, having defected, CDT is now able to get more of people’s privacy chits during the next legislative session, so they have more bargaining power and money than other privacy groups. That bargaining power is relevant, though, only if Mr. Veillance moves more bills in the future. To maintain its bargaining power and income, it is in the interest of CDT to see that legislation passes regularly. If anti-privacy legislation never passes, CDT’s unique role as a negotiator will not be valued and its ability to gather chits will diminish over time.

CDT plays a role in “improving” individual pieces of legislation to make them less privacy-invasive and it helps to ensure that improved—yet still privacy-invasive—legislation passes. Over the long run, to keep its seat at the table, CDT bargains away privacy.

This highly simplified representation game repeats itself across many issue-dimensions in every bill, and it involves many more, highly varied actors using widely differing influence “chits.” The power exchanges and signaling among parties ends up looking like a kaleidoscope rather than the linear story of an organization subtly putting its own goals ahead of the public interest.

Most people working in Washington, D.C., and almost assuredly everyone at CDT, have no awareness that they live under the collective action problem illustrated by this game. This is why government grows and privacy recedes.

In his article, McCullagh cites CDT founder Jerry Berman’s role in the 1994 passage of CALEA, the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act. I took particular interest in CDT’s 2009 backing of the REAL ID revival bill, PASS ID. In 2006, CDT’s Jim Dempsey helped give privacy cover to the use of RFID in identification documents contrary to the principle that RFID is for products, not people. A comprehensive study of CDT’s institutional behavior to confirm or deny my theory of its behavior would be very complex and time-consuming.

But divide and conquer works well. My experience is that CDT is routinely the first defector from the privacy coalition despite the earnest good intentions of many individual CDTers. And it’s why I say, perhaps in breach of decorum, things like: “A lot of people in Washington, D.C. think that working with CDT means working for good values like privacy. But CDT’s number one goal is having a seat at the table. And CDT will negotiate away privacy toward that end.”

Solyndra: A Political-Energy Company

Good reporting shouldn’t go unnoticed just because it appeared during the week after Christmas, so let me draw your attention to a comprehensive article on the front page of the December 26 Washington Post by Joe Stephens and Carol Leonnig:

Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama’s green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal ­e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials….

The documents reviewed by The Post … show that as Solyndra tottered, officials discussed the political fallout from its troubles, the “optics” in Washington and the impact that the company’s failure could have on the president’s prospects for a second term. Rarely, if ever, was there discussion of the impact that Solyndra’s collapse would have on laid-off workers or on the development of clean-energy technology.

Did you know that when the president visits a factory, his aides tell the workers what to wear? Keep digging in the documents:

Like most presidential appearances, Obama’s May 2010 stop at Solyndra’s headquarters was closely managed political theater.

Obama’s handlers had lengthy e-mail discussions about how solar panels should be displayed (from a robotic arm, it was decided). They cautioned the company’s chief executive against wearing a suit (he opted for an open-neck shirt and black slacks) and asked another executive to wear a hard hat and white smock. They instructed blue-collar employees to wear everyday work clothes, to preserve what they called “the construction-worker feel.”

This story has all the hallmarks of government decision making: officials spending other people’s money with little incentive to spend it prudently, political pressure to make decisions without proper vetting, the substitution of political judgment for the judgments of millions of investors, the enthusiastic embrace of fads like “green energy,” political officials ignoring warnings from civil servants, crony capitalism, close connections between politicians and the companies that benefit from government allocation of capital, the appearance—at least—of favors for political supporters, and the kind of promiscuous spending that has delivered us $15 trillion in national debt. It may end up being a case study in political economy. And if you want government to guide the economy, to pick winners, to override market investments, then this is what you want.

More on Solyndra here and here.

No Soccer for Oil!

Fans of soccer and liberal democracy — I’m in both groups — were disappointed to hear that the FIFA grandees awarded the 2018 World Cup to Putinland Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar (!).  My friend Grant Wahl has a typically sharp immediate reaction for Sports Illustrated that boils down to three points: (1) the choices prove once again that FIFA is not exactly a model of integrity and transparency; (2) Qatar?  Really?  Really?; and (3) the U.S. put together a strong bid and left everything on the pitch.

I would expand Grant’s first point to darned-near all elite international organizations, from the International Olympic Committee all the way to the United Nations (though the Wall Street Journal today said FIFA makes the UN look like a model).  Where there is no democratic accountability and plenty of rent-seeking opportunities, is corruption and non-merit-based decisionmaking all that surprising?

And of course this isn’t a matter of the United States losing out to a nation with a deep soccer (or any athletic) tradition, or even to a developing country set to burst onto the geo-political stage (like awarding the 1968 Olympics to Mexico City, the 1988 Games to Seoul, or the 2008 Games to Beijing).  No, this was a matter of petro-wealthy sheiks buying a major sporting event.  Bully for commercial competition, of course, but (a) those are sovereign, not private funds in play (though the distinction is observed in the breach in the Middle East); (b) playing in 110-degree heat can’t make sense (see the problems with the relatively balmy 1996 Atlanta Olympics — and I’ll believe the air-conditioned outdoor stadiums when I see them); and (c) who knows what the political situation will be in the region 12 years hence.  Plus bribing officials and riding anti-American sentiment — shocking, I know, given that George W. Bush was not part of the Bill Clinton/Morgan Freeman-led lobbying team — ain’t exactly a testament to the free market.

Speaking of economics, though, one silver lining to the U.S. disappointment — and that of England, once favored for the 2018 Cup but finishing with only two votes — is that hosting a “mega-event” like the World Cup or Olympics really doesn’t do much for a national economy (and more often than not has a detrimental economic impact).  And while I haven’t studied the details of the U.S. bid, it’s safe to assume that whatever public stadium and other subsidies were in it — probably not much compared to luring/keeping pro sports teams — paled in comparison to Qatar’s bid (let alone Russia’s).  And so American soccer fans’ loss is almost certainly American taxpayers’ gain.

In short, the Russia-Qatar double is a cynical course of events that will harm soccer’s long-term prospects in the United States and the reputation of international athletic bodies everywhere.  (Just in time for the annual peak in anti-BCS vitriol among lovers of American football, this time with a neat antitrust twist — on which more at some later point.)

Perhaps the biggest question, though, is how will Qatar’s strict alcohol laws affect fans’ enjoyment of “the beautiful game”?

Play Ball! But Not With Taxpayer Money

As we enjoy the opening week of the new baseball season, we should reflect on the dastardly organization that spends too much money and raises the price of baseball for everyone.

No, it’s not the New York Yankees: it’s the United States government.

You see, as discussed in this recent New York Times op-ed, the price of baseball has increased all across the Major Leagues because of the tax write-off (read: subsidy) that businesses get to treat clients and employees to ball games:

There are many reasons for the price explosion, but a critical factor has been the ability of businesses to write off tickets as entertainment expenses — essentially a huge, and wholly unnecessary, government subsidy.

These deductions have led to higher ticket prices in two ways. On the demand side, they have fueled competition for scarce seats, with business taxpayers bidding in part with dollars they save through the deductions.

While baseball parks built in the 1960s and before held as many as 56,000 seats, the modern trend is toward smaller-capacity parks, with a higher percentage of total space dedicated to skyboxes. The new Yankee Stadium, the only major-league park built since 2000 with more than 44,000 seats, has 3,000 fewer seats than its 1923 predecessor but almost three times as many skybox suites.

Of course, libertarians support low general taxes for a variety of reasons, but targeted tax breaks for luxury items pad the pockets of billionaire sports team owners, give a discount to companies showing off their “generosity” to clients, and generally distort the economy, all at a cost to taxpayers (including those who aren’t even baseball fans).

Boo! America’s national pastime of baseball should not be corrupted by national and state governments’ parochial pastime of corporate welfare.

For more in-depth analysis on the business of sports, read anything by Andrew Zimbalist or Home Team by my former professor Michael Danielson.  (Danielson taught a great class on the political economy of sports; my classmates who thought it would be a gut were in for a rude awakening.)

H/T: Above the Law