Tag: Reason

History Fun Fact: Ayn Rand Liked Ed Tax Credits

Many thanks to Lisa Snell at Reason for bringing this interesting historical fun fact from 1973 to light: Ayn Rand was a fan of education tax credits:

In the face of such evidence, one would expect the government’s performance in the field of education to be questioned, at the least, [but] the growing failures of the educational establishment are followed by the appropriation of larger and larger sums. There is, however, a practical alternative: tax credits for education.

The essentials of the idea (in my version) are as follows: an individual citizen would be given tax credits for the money he spends on education, whether his own education, his children’s, or any person’s he wants to put through a bona fide school of his own choice (including primary, secondary, and higher education).

Rand’s support for credits is interesting for a number of reasons, not least the fact that she explicitly endorses credits, not vouchers. I’ve had numerous and largely fruitless arguments over which policy is most “free-market” or least distorting. To me it is obvious that credits are the most “free-market” education reform. Now I can skip the arguments and yell, “Ayn Rand!”

Rand’s essay also highlights the fact that education tax credits were, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the most prominent private school policy on the scene. Federal tax credits were a live issue under Nixon and Carter. Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party gave strong and explicit support for education tax credits throughout the 1980’s – with tax credits, but not vouchers, mentioned specifically in the Republican Party platforms of 1980, 1984, and 1988.

The largely forgotten history of education tax credits … interesting …

PATRIOT Powers: Roving Wiretaps

Last week, I wrote a piece for Reason in which I took a close look at the USA PATRIOT Act’s “lone wolf” provision—set to expire at the end of the year, though almost certain to be renewed—and argued that it should be allowed to lapse. Originally, I’d planned to survey the whole array of authorities that are either sunsetting or candidates for reform, but ultimately decided it made more sense to give a thorough treatment to one than trying to squeeze an inevitably shallow gloss on four or five complex areas of law into the same space. But the Internets are infinite, so I’ve decided I’d turn the Reason piece into Part I of a continuing series on PATRIOT powers.  In this edition: Section 206, roving wiretap authority.

The idea behind a roving wiretap should be familiar if you’ve ever watched The Wire, where dealers used disposable “burner” cell phones to evade police eavesdropping. A roving wiretap is used when a target is thought to be employing such measures to frustrate investigators, and allows the eavesdropper to quickly begin listening on whatever new phone line or Internet account his quarry may be using, without having to go back to a judge for a new warrant every time. Such authority has long existed for criminal investigations—that’s “Title III” wiretaps if you want to sound clever at cocktail parties—and pretty much everyone, including the staunchest civil liberties advocates, seems to agree that it also ought to be available for terror investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. So what’s the problem here?

 

To understand the reasons for potential concern, we need to take a little detour into the differences between electronic surveillance warrants under Title III and FISA. The Fourth Amendment imposes two big requirements on criminal warrants: “probable cause” and “particularity”. That is, you need evidence that the surveillance you’re proposing has some connection to criminal activity, and you have to “particularly [describe] the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” For an ordinary non-roving wiretap, that means you show a judge the “nexus” between evidence of a crime and a particular “place” (a phone line, an e-mail address, or a physical location you want to bug). You will often have a named target, but you don’t need one: If you have good evidence gang members are meeting in some location or routinely using a specific payphone to plan their crimes, you can get a warrant to bug it without necessarily knowing the names of the individuals who are going to show up. On the other hand, though, you do always need that criminal nexus: No bugging Tony Soprano’s AA meeting unless you have some reason to think he’s discussing his mob activity there. Since places and communications facilities may be used for both criminal and innocent persons, the officer monitoring the facility is only supposed to record what’s pertinent to the investigation.

When the tap goes roving, things obviously have to work a bit differently. For roving taps, the warrant shows a nexus between the suspected crime and an identified target. Then, as surveillance gets underway, the eavesdroppers can go up on a line once they’ve got a reasonable belief that the target is “proximate” to a location or communications facility. It stretches that “particularity” requirement a bit, to be sure, but the courts have thus far apparently considered it within bounds. It may help that they’re not used with great frequency: Eleven were issued last year, all to state-level investigators, for narcotics and racketeering investigations.

Surveillance law, however, is not plug-and-play. Importing a power from the Title III context into FISA is a little like dropping an unfamiliar organism into a new environment—the consequences are unpredictable, and may well be dramatic. The biggest relevant difference is that with FISA warrants, there’s always a “target”, and the “probable cause” showing is not of criminal activity, but of a connection between that target and a “foreign power,” which includes terror groups like Al Qaeda. However, for a variety of reasons, both regular and roving FISA warrants are allowed to provide only a description of the target, rather than the target’s identity. Perhaps just as important, FISA has a broader definition of the “person” to be specified as a “target” than Title III. For the purposes of criminal wiretaps, a “person” means any “individual, partnership, association, joint stock company, trust, or corporation.” The FISA definition of “person” includes all of those, but may also be any “group, entity, …or foreign power.” Some, then, worry that roving authority could be used to secure “John Doe” warrants that don’t specify a particular location, phone line, or Internet account—yet don’t sufficiently identify a particular target either. Congress took some steps to attempt to address such concerns when they reauthorized Section 206 back in 2005, and other legislators have proposed further changes—which I’ll get to in a minute. But we actually need to understand a few more things about the peculiarities of FISA wiretaps to see why the risk of overbroad collection is especially high here.

In part because courts have suggested that the constraints of the Fourth Amendment bind more loosely in the foreign intelligence context, FISA surveillance is generally far more sweeping in its acquisition of information. In 2004, the FBI gathered some 87 years worth of foreign language audio recordings alone pursuant to FISA warrants. As David Kris (now assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division) explains in his definitive text on the subject, a FISA warrant typically “permits aquisition of nearly all information from a monitored facility or a searched location.” (This may be somewhat more limited for roving taps; I’ll return to the point shortly.) As a rare public opinion from the FISA Court put it in 2002: “Virtually all information seized, whether by electronic surveillance or physical search, is minimized hours, days, or weeks after collection.” The way this is supposed to be squared with the Fourth Amendment rights of innocent Americans who may be swept up in such broad interception is via those “minimization” procedures, employed after the fact to filter out irrelevant information.

That puts a fairly serious burden on these minimization procedures, however, and it’s not clear that they well bear it. First, consider the standard applied. The FISA Court explains that “communications of or concerning United States persons that could not be foreign intelligence information or are not evidence of a crime… may not be logged or summarized” (emphasis added). This makes a certain amount of sense: FISA intercepts will often be in unfamiliar languages, foreign agents will often speak in coded language, and the significance of a particular statement may not be clear initially. But such a deferential standard does mean they’re retaining an awful lot of data. And indeed, it’s important to recognize that “minimization” does not mean “deletion,” as the Court’s reference to “logs” and “summaries” hints. Typically intercepts that are “minimized” simply aren’t logged for easy retrieval in a database. In the 80s, this may have been nearly as good for practical purposes as deletion; with the advent of powerful audio search algorithms capable of scanning many hours of recording quickly for particular words or voices, it may not make much difference. And we know that much more material than is officially “retained” remains available to agents. In the 2003 case U.S. v. Sattar, pursuant to FISA surveillance, “approximately 5,175 pertinent voice calls .. were not minimized.”  But when it came time for the discovery phase of a criminal trial against the FISA targets, the FBI “retrieved and disclosed to the defendants over 85,000 audio files … obtained through FISA surveillance.”

Cognizant of these concerns, Congress tried to add some safeguards in 2005 when they reauthorized the PATRIOT Act. FISA warrants are still permitted to work on descriptions of a target, but the word “specific” was added, presumably to reinforce that the description must be precise enough to uniquely pick out a person or group. They also stipulated that eavesdroppers must inform the FISA Court within ten days of any new facility they eavesdrop on, and explain the “facts justifying a belief that the target is using, or is about to use, that new facility or place.”

Better, to be sure; but without access to the classified opinions of the FISA Court, it’s quite difficult to know just what this means in practice. In criminal investigations, we have a reasonable idea of what the “proximity” standard for roving taps entails. Maybe a target checks into a hotel with a phone in the room, or a dealer is observed to walk up to a pay phone, or to buy a “burner.” It is much harder to guess how the “is using or is about to use” standard will be construed in light of FISA’s vastly broader presumption of sweeping up-front acquisition. Again, we know that the courts have been satisfied to place enormous weight on after-the-fact minimization of communications, and it seems inevitable that they will do so to an even greater extent when they only learn of a new tap ten days (or 60 days with good reason) after eavesdropping has commenced.

We also don’t know how much is built into that requirement that warrants name a “specific” target, and there’s a special problem here when surveillance roves across not only facilities but types of facility. Suppose, for instance, that a FISA warrant is issued for me, but investigators have somehow been unable to learn my identity. Among the data they have obtained for their description, however, are a photograph, a voiceprint from a recording of my phone conversation with a previous target, and the fact that I work at the Cato Institute. Now, this is surely sufficient to pick me out specifically for the purposes of a warrant initially meant for telephone or oral surveillance.  The voiceprint can be used to pluck all and only my conversations from the calls on Cato’s lines. But a description sufficient to specify a unique target in that context may not be sufficient in the context of, say, Internet surveillance, as certain elements of the description become irrelevant, and the remaining threaten to cover a much larger pool of people. Alternatively, if someone has a very unusual regional dialect, that may be sufficiently specific to pinpoint their voice in one location or community using a looser matching algorithm (perhaps because there is no actual recording, or it is brief or of low quality), but insufficient if they travel to another location where many more people have similar accents.

Russ Feingold (D-WI) has proposed amending the roving wiretap language so as to require that a roving tap identify the target. In fact, it’s not clear that this quite does the trick either. First, just conceptually, I don’t know that a sufficiently precise description can be distinguished from an “identity.” There’s an old and convoluted debate in the philosophy of language about whether proper names refer directly to their objects or rather are “disguised definite descriptions,” such that “Julian Sanchez” means “the person who is habitually called that by his friends, works at Cato, annoys others by singing along to Smiths songs incessantly…” and so on.  Whatever the right answer to that philosophical puzzle, clearly for the practical purposes at issue here, a name is just one more kind of description. And for roving taps, there’s the same kind of scope issue: Within Washington, DC, the name “Julian Sanchez” probably either picks me out uniquely or at least narrows the target pool down to a handful of people. In Spain or Latin America—or, more relevant for our purposes, in parts of the country with very large Hispanic communities—it’s a little like being “John Smith.”

This may all sound a bit fanciful. Surely sophisticated intelligence officers are not going to confuse Cato Research Fellow Julian Sanchez with, say, Duke University Multicultural Affairs Director Julian Sanchez? And of course, that is quite unlikely—I’ve picked an absurdly simplistic example for purposes of illustration. But there is quite a lot of evidence in the public record to suggest that intelligence investigations have taken advantage of new technologies to employ “targeting procedures” that do not fit our ordinary conception of how search warrants work. I mentioned voiceprint analysis above; keyword searches of both audio and text present another possibility.

We also know that individuals can often be uniquely identified by their pattern of social or communicative connections. For instance, researchers have found that they can take a completely anonymized “graph” of the social connections on a site like Facebook—basically giving everyone a name instead of a number, but preserving the pattern of who is friends with whom—and then use that graph to relink the numbers to names using the data of a differentbut overlapping social network like Flickr or Twitter. We know the same can be (and is) done with calling records—since in a sense your phone bill is a picture of another kind of social network. Using such methods of pattern analysis, investigators might determine when a new “burner” phone is being used by the same person they’d previously been targeting at another number, even if most or all of his contacts have alsoswitched phone numbers. Since, recall, the “person” who is the “target” of FISA surveillance may be a “group” or other “entity,” and since I don’t think Al Qaeda issues membership cards, the “description” of the target might consist of a pattern of connections thought to reliably distinguish those who are part of the group from those who merely have some casual link to another member.

This brings us to the final concern about roving surveillance under FISA. Criminal wiretaps are always eventually disclosed to their targets after the fact, and typically undertaken with a criminal trial in mind—a trial where defense lawyers will pore over the actions of investigators in search of any impropriety. FISA wiretaps are covert; the targets typically will never learn that they occurred. FISA judges and legislators may be informed, at least in a summary way, about what surveillance was undertaken and what targeting methods were used, but especially if those methods are of the technologically sophisticated type I alluded to above, they are likely to have little choice but to defer to investigators on questions of their accuracy and specificity. Even assuming total honesty by the investigators, judges may not think to question whether a method of pattern analysis that is precise and accurate when applied (say) within a single city or metro area will be as precise at the national level, or whether, given changing social behavior, a method that was precise last year will also be precise next year. Does it matter if an Internet service initially used by a few thousands—including, perhaps, surveillance targets—comes to be embraced by millions? Precisely because the surveillance is so secretive, it is incredibly hard to know which concerns are urgent and which are not really a problem, let alone how to think about addressing the ones that merit some legislative response.

I nevertheless intend to give it a shot in a broader paper on modern surveillance I’m working on, but for the moment I’ll just say: “It’s tricky.”  What is absolutely essential to take away from this, though, is that these loose and lazy analogies to roving wiretaps in criminal investigations are utterly unhelpful in thinking about the specific problems of roving FISA surveillance. That investigators have long been using “these” powers under Title III is no answer at all to the questions that arise here. Legislators who invoke that fact as though it should soothe every civil libertarian brow are simply evading their responsibilities.

Is Buying an iPod Un-American?

We own three iPods at my house, including a recently purchased iPod Touch. Since many of the iPod parts are made abroad, is my family guilty of allowing our consumer spending to “leak” abroad, depriving the American economy of the consumer stimulus we are told it so desperately needs? If you believe the “Buy American” lectures and legislation coming out of Washington, the answer must be yes.

Our friends at ReasonTV have just posted a brilliant video short, “Is Your iPod Unpatriotic?” With government requiring its contractors to buy American-made steel, iron, and manufactured products, is it only a matter of time before the iPod—“Assembled in China,” of all places—comes under scrutiny? You can view the video here:

In my upcoming Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I talk about how American companies are moving to the upper regions of the “smiley curve.” The smiley curve is a way of thinking about global supply chains where Americans reap the most value at the beginning and the end of the production process while China and other low-wage countries perform the low-value assembly in the middle. In the book, I hold up our family’s iPods as an example of the unappreciated benefits of a more globalized American economy:

The lesson of the smiley curve was brought home to me after a recent Christmas when I was admiring my two teen-age sons’ new iPod Nanos. Inscribed on the back was the telling label, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” To the skeptics of trade, an imported Nano only adds to our disturbingly large bilateral trade deficit with China in “advanced technology products,” but here in the palm of a teenager’s hand was a perfect symbol of the win-win nature of our trade with China.

Assembling iPods obviously creates jobs for Chinese workers, jobs that probably pay higher-than-average wages in that country even though they labor in the lowest regions of the smiley curve. But Americans benefit even more from the deal. A team of economists from the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine applied the smiley curve to a typical $299 iPod and found just what you might suspect: Americans reap most of the value from its production. Although assembled in China, an American company supplies the processing chips, a Korean company the memory chip, and Japanese companies the hard drive and display screen. According to the authors, “The value added to the product through assembly in China is probably a few dollars at most.”

The biggest winner? Apple and its distributors. Standing atop the value chain, Apple reaps $80 in profit for each unit sold—an amount higher than the cost of any single component. Its distributors, on the opposite high end of the smiley curve, make another $75. And of course, American owners of the more than 100 million iPods sold since 2001—my teen-age sons included—pocket far more enjoyment from the devices than the Chinese workers who assembled them.

To learn a whole lot more about how American middle-class families benefit from trade and globalization, you can now pre-order the book at Amazon.com.

Why Promiscuous Bail-Outs Never Was a Good Idea

Jeffrey A. Miron explains in Reason why a government bail-out of most everyone was neither the only option nor the best option:

When people try to pin the blame for the financial crisis on the introduction of derivatives, or the increase in securitization, or the failure of ratings agencies, it’s important to remember that the magnitude of both boom and bust was increased exponentially because of the notion in the back of everyone’s mind that if things went badly, the government would bail us out. And in fact, that is what the federal government has done. But before critiquing this series of interventions, perhaps we should ask what the alternative was. Lots of people talk as if there was no option other than bailing out financial institutions. But you always have a choice. You may not like the other choices, but you always have a choice. We could have, for example, done nothing.

By doing nothing, I mean we could have done nothing new. Existing policies were available, which means bankruptcy or, in the case of banks, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation receivership. Some sort of orderly, temporary control of a failing institution for the purpose of either selling off the assets and liquidating them, or, preferably, zeroing out the equity holders, giving the creditors a haircut and making them the new equity holders. Similarly, a bankruptcy or receivership proceeding might sell the institution to some player in the private sector willing to own it for some price.

With that method, taxpayer funds are generally unneeded, or at least needed to a much smaller extent than with the bailout approach. In weighing bankruptcy vs. bailouts, it’s useful to look at the problem from three perspectives: in terms of income distribution, long-run efficiency, and short-term efficiency.

From the distributional perspective, the choice is a no-brainer. Bailouts took money from the taxpayers and gave it to banks that willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly took huge amounts of risk, hoping they’d get bailed out by everyone else. It clearly was an unfair transfer of funds. Under bankruptcy, on the other hand, the people who take most or even all of the loss are the equity holders and creditors of these institutions. This is appropriate, because these are the stakeholders who win on the upside when there’s money to be made. Distributionally, we clearly did the wrong thing.

It’s too late to reverse history.  But it would help if Washington politicians stopped plotting new bail-outs.  At this stage, most every American could argue that they are entitled to a bail-out because most every other American has already received one.

Week in Review: Health Care Battles, Pay Caps and North Korean Prisoners

Will Obama Raise Middle-Class Taxes to Fund Health Care?

President Obama is promoting an expansion in federal health care spending, and Democratic leaders are scrambling to find ways to pay for it. The plan is expected to cost about $1.5 trillion over the next decade, but the administration has promised that health care legislation won’t add to already huge federal budget deficits. In a new paper, Cato scholars Michael D. Tanner and Chris Edwards argue that expanding government health care will likely involve huge tax increases on the middle class.

Tanner warns of “Obamacare” to come, saying that Obama’s new health care plan will give “government control over one-sixth of the U.S. economy, and over some of the most important, personal, and private decisions in Americans’ lives.” Don’t miss Tanner’s in-depth analysis of the new health care plan that is making its way through Congress, which “would dramatically transform the American health care system in a way that would harm taxpayers, health care providers, and — most importantly — the quality and range of care given to patients.”

A part of the plan would include “public option” (read: government-run) health care, which would allow the government to compete against private health care providers. Tanner says it would be the first step toward wiping out the private insurance market as we know it:

Regardless of how it is structured or administered, such a plan would have an inherent advantage in the marketplace because it would ultimately be subsidized by taxpayers. It could, for instance, keep its premiums artificially low or offer extra benefits, then turn to the U.S. Treasury to cover any shortfalls. Consumers would naturally be attracted to the lower-cost, higher-benefit government program.

…It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances. America would be firmly on the road to a single-payer health care system with all the dangers that presents. That would be a disaster for American taxpayers, physicians, and—most importantly—patients.

Treasury Seeks to Control Executive Pay Across the Private Sector

Fox Business reports, “The Treasury Department on Wednesday took new steps to rein in executive compensation, saying the Obama Administration would introduce legislation that could create stricter limits on pay; it also appointed an official to head up efforts on the issue.”

In a 2008 Policy Analysis Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten explain the misconceptions many people have about executive pay, and why the market is a better arbiter than any bureaucrat in Washington:

Such populist sentiments are often based on misunderstandings about the role of corporate executives in the economy and the vigorous competition that exists for these highly skilled leaders. In the past, federal regulatory efforts based on such misunderstandings have generated unintended consequences, which have damaged the economy and hurt the ability of the market for executives to self-regulate over time.

The labor market for executives and the associated pay levels are already subject to high levels of regulation. Indeed, U.S. corporations are subject to more stringent executive pay disclosure requirements than corporations anywhere else in the world. Before additional regulatory and legislative efforts are unleashed, policymakers should examine the rationale for current pay structures and the strong links between executive pay and corporate performance.

In a Washington Times op-ed, Alan Reynolds says efforts to cap executive pay are wholly misguided:

Congressional hearings to barbecue Wall Street executives are as fun as a circus, but with more clowns. Presidential politics is now taking such political distractions to a lower level.

…Most top executives who were actually in charge during the craze of overinvestment in mortgage-backed securities have been fired. Executives who are fired are not in a position to be “giving themselves” anything.

In reality, top executives are mainly paid by accumulating a big stockpile of company stock and stock options. Estimates of annual CEO pay that Congress and the press have been focusing on look as high as they do only because of the high value of restricted stock or stock options at the time.

Writing in 2007 (before the first round of major bailouts), Cato scholars Jerry Taylor and Jagadeesh Gokhale took it a step further: “Pay Bosses More!”:

Excessive executive compensation harms no one but perhaps the stockholders who put up with it. And stockholders put up with it because there’s good reason to believe that sizable CEO compensation packages help – not harm – corporate performance, which redounds to their benefit, and that of the firms’ workers.

Companies pay workers what they must to deliver their products and services to the market, and supply and demand establishes executive compensation packages the same way it establishes consumer prices. Any overcompensation comes out of the firm’s bottom line – at a loss to the shareholders, not the workers.

North Korea Sentences Two U.S. Journalists to 12 Years Hard Labor

Two American journalists were convicted of entering North Korea illegally while on assignment, and exhibiting “hostility toward the Korean people.” This week, a North Korean court sentenced them to 12 years in a labor prison.

Cato scholar Doug Bandow comments:

Washington should publicly downplay the controversy and present the issue to the Kim regime as a humanitarian matter. The Obama administration should indicate its willingness to open a broader dialogue with North Korea, but indicate that positive results will be possible only if Pyongyang responds with cooperation instead of confrontation. Releasing the two journalists obviously would provide evidence of the former.

Regrettably, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are political pawns. As such, Washington’s best strategy to achieve their release is to simultaneously reduce their perceived value to Pyongyang and ease tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Patience may be the Obama administration’s highest virtue and Ling’s and Lee’s greatest hope.

In a Cato Daily Podcast, Bandow discusses what can be done for the American prisoners, and how the U.S. government should react.

New Doherty Book Review

There is a new review of Brian Doherty’s book, Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment, over at The American Spectator.

The review captures the uphill battle that the Heller litigants faced in the District of Columbia:

When an employee on the Taxicab Commission once suggested that taxicab drivers be able to arm themselves for self- defense, a spokesman for then mayor Anthony Williams said, “The proposal is nutty, and obviously, it would not be entertained seriously by any thinking person.” After D.C. readjusted its laws in the wake of Heller so that guns were no longer prohibited but regulated to the point of making ownership exceedingly difficult, Mayor Adrian Fenty justified it thusly: “I don’t think [the people of D.C.] intended that anybody who had a vague notion of a threat should have access to a gun.” Apparently the mayor doesn’t know or doesn’t care that once a threat is real, it’s probably too late to go through all of the city’s regulatory hoops.

Cato held a book forum for the event, which is available here.  Also check out Reason TV’s videos of Brian discussing this historic legal battle, both before and after the decision came down.