Tag: travel

Not the Transparency I Was Hoping For

The Obama administration’s record on open government isn’t so hot, but the State Department expects the utmost in transparency from anyone applying for a passport. Here are the details on a proposed passport application:

The proposed new  Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information.  According to the proposed form, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

This document is only intended for those who do not have a birth certificate, so additional scrutiny is warranted. But compliance with the form is a mixture of the difficult and the impossible. Security clearances generally only require employment and residence information going back seven or ten years, but this form asks for a lifetime accounting of both. Providing details on the circumstances of your birth is asking a lot - but a listing of pre-natal appointments?

To cap it off, the State Department estimates that the average person will only require 45 minutes to compile the information for this form.

Will Taxing Foreign Visitors Promote Tourism?

President Obama is taking a break today from promoting a more federalized health-care system to sign a bill creating a federalized tourist promotion campaign.

In a closed ceremony at the White House, the president signed the Travel Promotion Act. After gaining final passage by the Senate last week, the bill will raise an estimated $200 million a year by imposing a $10 tax on visitors to the United States from countries where they are not required to obtain a visa. The revenue will be used to create and fund a new agency, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, that would work with the U.S. tourism industry to promote the United States as a global travel destination.

I’m all for promoting tourism to the United States. Tourism is an important “service export” that generates more than $100 billion a year in earnings from foreign travelers to the United States. But a new federal agency and a new tax on travel are not the right way to drum up more tourism business.

First, just on principle, promoting a particular industry should be the business of that industry, not the business of government. Americans also export billions of dollars worth of farm goods, semiconductors, machinery, aircraft, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals, along with financial, education, insurance, and other services. None of those industries deserves their own tax-financed promotion board either. If the payoff from promotion is so huge, the industry should be willing to bear its cost without the aid of the government.

More practically, it goes against basic economic logic to promote tourism to the United States by imposing new costs on tourists. Granted, $10 is not a large amount, but the demand curve for tourism is downward sloping - as it is in every other market. A higher price will lead to less demand, not more. As a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association told ABC News:

It’s absolutely counterintuitive. To us, we’re saying we’d love to see more people visit the United States, but we’re going to charge you more for the privilege of entering the country. We are in favor of increased tourism and visitation… but let’s look at our priorities. We don’t think that videos and billboards are necessarily a priority. Instead, we should be focusing on how to make customs and immigration easier for people.

As I argued in a previous post, the U.S. government should be doing more to keep dangerous people off  flights to the United States instead of making it even more difficult for perfectly harmless tourists and business travelers to get on those same flights.

Michael Savage: Still Banned in the UK

In my Policy Analysis “Attack of the Utility Monsters,” I noted that U.S. talk radio host Michael Savage had been preemptively banned from entering the United Kingdom, for fear that he would incite hatred on arrival. I also noted that the ban had been rescinded – which, anyway, it appeared to have been at the time. Today I read that Savage’s travel ban is back on again.

What had Savage done that was so terrible? I’m not exactly sure, but here are some things that he’s said:

On homosexuality, he once said: “The gay and lesbian mafia wants our children. If it can win their souls and their minds, it knows their bodies will follow.”

Another of his pet topics is autism, which he claims is a result of “brats” without fathers.

He has also made comments about killing Muslims, although in one broadcast he cited extremists’ desires to execute gays as a reason for deporting them.

None are sentiments I agree with. In fact, I think all of them range somewhere from foolish to idiotic. Which is exactly why I’d welcome Michael Savage into a liberal, tolerant society: Let him contend with his betters, and he will lose. Treat him like a danger, and the tolerant society will appear weak – and intolerant.

Congress to Lift the Travel Ban to Cuba?

Bloomberg News reports today that the U.S. House may pass a bill by the end of the year lifting the almost five-decade-old ban on travel to Cuba by American citizens. The step is long overdue. According to the article:

A group of House and Senate lawmakers proposed in March ending restrictions to allow all U.S. citizens and residents to travel to Cuba. [Rep. Sam Farr, a California Democrat] said the legislation, known as the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” also has enough votes to clear the Senate, where Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and Republican Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming introduced the legislation.

As Rep. Farr succinctly added, “If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily, but if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”

“If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily,” he said. “But if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”

I rebut a lot of what Sen. Dorgan has said about free trade and globalization in my new book, Mad about Trade, but on the issue of the Cuban embargo and travel ban, Sen. Dorgan and most of his fellow Democrats are pushing in the right direction, while most Republicans still vote to maintain our failed policies. For more on why the travel ban and embargo should be lifted, read my speech at Rice University in 2005.

Here is one issue where those of use who support less government and more economic freedom really can hope for progressive change.

High-Speed Fail

In a four-part series on the New York Times Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser scrutinized high-speed rail and concluded that the benefits are overwhelmed by the costs. After making generous assumptions regarding the costs, user benefits, environmental benefits, and effects on urban development, Glaeser concludes that all the benefits of high-speed rail would still be less than half the costs.

As Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson observes, the Obama administration’s vision of high-speed rail is “a mirage. The costs of high-speed rail would be huge, and the public benefits meager.” Yet even Samuelson falls victim to the common assumption that high-speed rail “works in Europe and Asia” because population densities in those places are higher than in the United States.

The truth is that high-speed rail doesn’t work in Europe or Asia either. Japan and France have both spent about as much on high-speed rail as they have on their intercity freeway systems, yet the average residents of those countries travel by car 10 to 20 times as much as they travel by high-speed rail. They also fly domestically more than they take high-speed rail. While the highways and airlines pay for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees, high-speed rail is heavily subsidized and serves only a tiny urban elite.

Obama uses the fact that France, Japan, and a few other countries are racing one another to have the fastest high-speed trains to argue that we need to join the race. That’s like saying we need to spend billions subsidizing buggy whip or horse collar manufacturers or some third-world country will beat us in those technologies. The fact is that high-speed trains will never be as fast as flying on long trips and never be as convenient as driving on short trips, and there is no medium-length trip in which high-speed rail can compete without heavy subsidies.

The rail advocates go ballistic whenever anyone questions their fantasies, mostly engaging in ad hominem attacks (“you must be paid by the oil companies!”) or accusing skeptics of lying about rail. The reality is that Glaeser (like me) “almost always prefer trains to driving.” If anything, he was too generous in many of his assumptions about high-speed rail.

For example, Glaeser built his case around a hypothetical high-speed line between Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston, the nation’s fifth- and sixth-largest urban areas which together house close to 10 million people and are located about 240 miles apart, supposedly an ideal distance for high-speed trains. If the numbers don’t work for this market, how are they going to work for Eugene-Seattle, Tulsa-Oklahoma City, New Orleans-Mobile, St. Louis-Kansas City, or any of the other much smaller city pairs in the Obama high-speed rail plan?

The rail nuts don’t want to hear Glaeser’s (or Cato’s) numbers because they fantasize the Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” myth; that building rail will “create the demand for the rail lines.” That may have been true in nineteenth-century America, when no alternative forms of transportation could compete with rail. But it wasn’t true in twentieth-century France or Japan (where heavily subsidized high-speed rail carries only 4 to 6 percent of passenger travel), and it won’t be true in twenty-first-century America.

Building high-speed rail will be like standing in the chilly vestibule of an Amtrak train in mid-winter Chicago and burning million-dollar bills to keep warm. But that’s what happens when you base your transportation policies on a slogan from a Kevin Costner movie rather than on real data.

600 Billion Data Points Per Day? It’s Time to Restore the Fourth Amendment

Jeff Jonas has published an important post: “Your Movements Speak for Themselves: Space-Time Travel Data is Analytic Super-Food!”

More than you probably realize, your mobile device is a digital sensor, creating records of your whereabouts and movements:

Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day. Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not. Got a Blackberry? Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not. If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using a location-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters. Using Wi-Fi? It is accurate below 10 meters.

The process of deploying this data to markedly improve our lives is underway. A friend of Jonas’ says that space-time travel data used to reveal traffic tie-ups shaves two to four hours off his commute each week. When it is put to full use, “the world we live in will fundamentally change. Organizations and citizens alike will operate with substantially more efficiency. There will be less carbon emissions, increased longevity, and fewer deaths.”

This progress is not without cost:

A government not so keen on free speech could use such data to see a crowd converging towards a protest site and respond before the swarm takes form – detected and preempted, this protest never happens. Or worse, it could be used to understand and then undermine any political opponent.

Very few want government to be able to use this data as Jonas describes, and not everybody wants to participate in the information economy quite so robustly. But the public can’t protect itself against what it can’t see. So Jonas invites holders of space-time data to reveal it:

[O]ne way to enlighten the consumer would involve holders of space-time-travel data [permitting] an owner of a mobile device the ability to also see what they can see:

(a) The top 10 places you spend the most time (e.g., 1. a home address, 2. a work address, 3. a secondary work facility address, 4. your kids school address, 5. your gym address, and so on);

(b) The top three most predictable places you will be at a specific time when on the move (e.g., Vegas on the 215 freeway passing the Rainbow exit on Thursdays 6:07 - 6:21pm – 57% of the time);

(c) The first name and first letter of the last name of the top 20 people that you regularly meet-up with (turns out to be wife, kids, best friends, and co-workers – and hopefully in that order!)

(d) The best three predictions of where you will be for more than one hour (in one place) over the next month, not counting home or work.

Google’s Android and Latitude products are candidates to take the lead, he says, and I agree. Google collectively understands both openness and privacy, and it’s nimble enough still to execute something like this. Other mobile providers would be forced to follow this innovation.

What should we do to reap the benefits while minimizing the costs? The starting point is you: It is your responsibility to deal with your mobile provider as an adult. Have you read your contract? Have you asked them whether they collect this data, how long they keep it, whether they share it, and under what terms?

Think about how you can obscure yourself. Put your phone in airplane mode when you are going someplace unusual - or someplace usual. (You might find that taking a break from being connected opens new vistas in front of your eyes.) Trade phones with others from time to time. There are probably hacks on mobile phone system that could allow people to protect themselves to some degree.

Privacy self-help is important, but obviously it can be costly. And you shouldn’t have to obscure yourself from your mobile communications provider, giving up the benefits of connected living, to maintain your privacy from government.

The emergence of space-time travel data begs for restoration of Fourth Amendment protections in communications data. In my American University Law Review article, “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine,” I described the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment as to modern communications.

The “reasonable expectation of privacy” doctrine that arose out of the Supreme Court’s 1967 Katz decision is wrong—it isn’t even founded in the majority holding of the case. The “third-party doctrine,” following Katz in a pair of early 1970s Bank Secrecy Act cases, denies individuals Fourth Amendment claims on information held by service providers. Smith v. Maryland brought it home to communications in 1979, holding that people do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the telephone numbers they dial. (Nevermind that they actually have privacy—the doctrine trumps it.)

Concluding, apropos of Jonas’ post, I wrote:

These holdings were never right, but they grow more wrong with each step forward in modern, connected living. Incredibly deep reservoirs of information are constantly collected by third-party service providers today.

Cellular telephone networks pinpoint customers’ locations throughout the day through the movement of their phones. Internet service providers maintain copies of huge swaths of the information that crosses their networks, tied to customer identifiers. Search engines maintain logs of searches that can be correlated to specific computers and usually the individuals that use them. Payment systems record each instance of commerce, and the time and place it occurred.

The totality of these records are very, very revealing of people’s lives. They are a window onto each individual’s spiritual nature, feelings, and intellect. They reflect each American’s beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and sensations. They ought to be protected, as they are the modern iteration of our “papers and effects.”

Making Airline Travel as Unpleasant as Possible

The Transportation Safety Administration long has made air travel as unpleasant as possible without obvious regard to the impact on safety.  Thankfully, the TSA recently dropped the inane procedure of asking to see your boarding pass as you passed through the checkpoint – a few feet away from where you entered the security line, at which point you had shown both your boarding pass and ID. 

However, there are proposals afoot in Congress to set new carry-on luggage restrictions, to be enforced by the TSA, even though they would do nothing to enhance security.  An inch either way on the heighth or width of a bag wouldn’t help any terrorists intent on taking over an airplane.  But the proposed restrictions would inconvenience travelers and allow the airlines to fob off on government what should be their own responsibility for setting luggage standards. 

TSA also has restarted ad hoc inspections of boarding passengers.  At least flights as well as passengers are targeted randomly.  After 9/11 the TSA conducted secondary inspections for every flight.  The process suggested that the initial inspections were unreliable, delayed passengers, and led experienced flyers to game the process.  It was critical to try to hit the front of the line while the inspectors were busy bothering someone else.  There was no full-proof system, but I learned that being first or second in line was particularly dangerous.

Finally TSA dropped the practice.  And, as far as I am aware, no planes were hijacked or terrorist acts committed as a result.  But TSA recently restarted the inspections, though on a random basis.

I had to remember my old lessons last week, when I ran into the routine on my return home from a trip during which I addressed students about liberty.  Luckily I was able to get on board, rather than get stuck as TSA personnel pawed through bags already screened at the security check point.

There’s no fool-proof way to ensure security for air travel.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience passengers while only looking like one is ensuring airline security.