Topic: Cato Publications

Today, at Least, Britannica Rules the Web

Congratulations to Wikipedia for going dark for a day in protest of the “online piracy” bills being considered in Congress.

But what do we do for information today? You know, we’ve gotten used to being able to find information now. So here’s an idea: Try the original encyclopedia, the one written (in most cases, ahem) by scholars and experts, Britannica.

You could start with their article on libertarianism. Or indeed their article on censorship. And then move on to the columns that I wrote there for most of 2011, on such topics as the debt ceiling crisis, the French Revolution, the founding documents of the United States and the Communist Party of China, the false charge of isolationism, marriage equality in 1967 and 2011,  government waste (“this is the business you have chosen”), the Stonewall protests, the triumph of feminism, and why Keynes threw towels on the floor. Good heavens – that ought to keep you busy on Wednesday.

And then Thursday at noon, as Wikipedia and other sites reopen, you can go down to Capitol Hill at noon to see a panel of experts explain what’s wrong with the bills that the websites are protesting.

Drone Warfare at Cato Unbound

In recent years, drone warfare technology has made tremendous strides, allowing modern war to be conducted in many respects by remote control.

This may seem like a boon to technologically savvy countries like the United States, and in a sense it clearly is. But the moral calculus of war is rarely that simple. While drones can and do shield front-line troops from danger, and can often substitute for them entirely, they also have other effects. Drones can make it more likely that we will enter into wars, for example, and if so, then it’s no longer clear that they help the ordinary soldier. Drones may increase casualties among noncombatants; their pinpoint accuracy is only as good as the human intelligence behind them, which now may be more subject to manipulation, not less. And drones are also available to hostile states and nonstate actors, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

To discuss these issues, Cato Unbound this month has assembled a panel of experts on drones and ethics of war. Our lead essay is by David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame; he is joined by Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, as well as Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, who will contribute on Friday; and Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy, whose reply will appear on Monday.

Conversation will continue throughout the month, so be sure to subscribe via RSS if you want to see the discussion as it happens.

Withholding Scientific Data: Good Idea or Not?

Should information be withheld from academic journals because of the potential that it might fall into the hands of terrorists? The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has asked the journals Science and Nature to keep certain details out of reports they intend to publish about experiments that produced a human-transmissible version of a flu virus that is deadly about 50 percent of the time.

The NSABB said conclusions should be published, but not “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.” This government panel has not sought to ban the release this information, so we’re not talking about formal censorship, but the request is at an early point on the censorship continuum.

It would seem that withholding this information from academic journals might do some good. But the limiting factor on production of a newly transmissible virus is training in virology (or whatever) and access to the equipment that allows such work to be done—not access to data about the technique used in these experiments. Whether it’s published in these journals or not, a criminal/terrorist virologist would probably be able to access the data using the subterfuge of having a genuine scientific interest.

So, to stop terrorists accessing bioweapons do we limit training in virology? Control laboratory equipment as dual-use civilian/military technology? No, because the massive weight of training and equipment—something approaching, if not actually, 100 percent—will go to people who will use these things to make us safer, even if a one-off tries to use virology skills to make us unsafe.

It’s a close call, and I’m not entirely certain about what I’ve just said, but this is a more difficult logic puzzle than most people think. Given the overwhelming majority of good people using information for good, diffusion of information will almost always be good. I doubt that the NSABB has sufficiently considered the costs of withholding information about the modified virus from people who would use that information to secure against its modification by whatever invention they bring to bear. (I can’t cite the invention because it hasn’t been invented yet!)

This is akin to the gun control issue. Consensus goes against guns because they make a loud bang and often draw blood when they’re used harmfully, but they are utterly silent in their beneficial use of deterring crime and violence, which is what they do the vast majority of the time. The idea of a massive epidemic strikes our primal imaginations with fear, while the notion of scientists converting diffuse knowledge into security against epidimics is a somber intellectual exercise.

Speaking of imagination, the idea of the terrorist super-villain is widespread, but imaginary. It’s important to remember that the 9/11 terrorists had box cutters. They had no idea their attack would produce the collapse of the twin towers, though many people reasoned backwards from that devastation to give them sophistication (and motivations) they didn’t actually have. It’s our psychology/imagination that gave terrorists access to chem/bio/rad/super-weapons over the last decade, a notion that almost certainly infects the considerations of the NSABB.

It’s probably a mistake to withhold scientific data from publication. We’re rather more safe from the threat of biological terrorism than most people think, and we’d get marginally safer from having information about virus experiments easily available to any researcher who might use it to discover ways of making us even safer.

(Related: Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies has a great contrarian piece in the Cato book Terrorizing Ourselves about the counterproductive mania around bioweapons, though his points don’t easily sync up with what I’ve said here.)

Government Spending Transparency: ‘Needs Improvement’ Is Understatement

Back in September, I rated Congress on how well it is publishing information about its deliberations and decisions. “Needs Improvement” was the understated theme.

Now we’re looking at the government’s publication of data that reflects budgeting, appropriations, and spending. “Needs improvement” isn’t just understated in this area. It’s really, really understated.

On the budgeting, appropriations, and spending transparency report card I’m putting out today, B+ is the best grade—and it goes to just half of one subject area. There are 2.5 Cs, 3 Ds, and 4 incompletes. This area needs improvement.

What is transparency, anyway? In my briefing paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I wrote about the publication practices that support transparency. They are: authority, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. That means putting good data out from a consistent source in sensible ways, and, especially, structuring the data so that computers can interpret it.

You know what the World Wide Web is? It’s a whole bunch of structured data. If you want the kind of breakthrough in transparency for government data that the Web was for communications, you want the data structured right.

Our draft structure for data in this area is in our “Conceptual Data Model of the U.S. Federal Government Budgetary Process.” (HTML version, Word version)

Structured data doesn’t really exist yet in the area of budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The one bright spot is the president’s annual budget submission, which includes some information in a workable structure, but there is much room for improvement even there.

Because I’m so nice, I’ve given a lot of “incompletes” where I could have—and some say should have—given Fs. Believe it or not, there is NO federal government “organization chart” that is published in a way computers can use. That’s one of the building blocks of computerized oversight, and its absence is easily rectified.

When we return to these issues in the summer or fall of next year, and review more formally how Congress and the administration have done on transparency, I expect these things to be fixed. (Fear the blog post!)

In the meantime, here’s a run-down of the grades and why they were given. A Hill briefing today might be available online at the page for the event. (It’s somewhat symbolic that the room we have on Capitol Hill is ill-equipped for live-streaming, but we’re going to try.)

I’ve alternated in this post between “I” and “we” because I’ve gotten so much help on this. People from OMB Watch, the National Priorities Project, and the Sunlight Foundation have helped a great deal with this project, to name a few—and omit many others! The grades, the commentary, the errors, the misstatements, and omissions are all mine. And there are going to be plenty of gaps in this work. That’s why this is a blog post and not a formal Cato publication.


Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Budgeting, Appropriations, and Spending

How well can the Internet access data about the federal government’s budgeting, appropriating, and spending? In consultation with transparency experts, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, rated how Congress and the administration publish key spending-cycle data in terms of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.

These criteria envision a world where there is one authoritative source for each category of information. Unfortunately, what spending data there is appears in a lot of sources that have grown up haphazardly. There might even be some sources we don’t know about. Future grades will undoubtedly reflect improvements in what researchers, reporters, websites, and the public at large can see and use, aided by their computers.

Agencies: I

Federal agencies are the “agents” of Congress and the president. They carry out federal policy and spending decisions. Accordingly, one of the building blocks of data about spending is going to be a definitive list of the organizational units that do the spending.

Is there such a list? Yes! It’s Appendix C of OMB Circular A-11, “Listing of OMB Agency/Bureau and Treasury Codes.” But this list is a PDF document that is found on the Office of Management and Budget website.

Believe it or not, there is NO federal government “organization chart” that is published in a way amenable to computer processing!

There are distinct identifiers for agencies in both the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Either of these could be published as the executive branch’s definitive list of its agencies. This fruit is hanging so low that a gopher could snack on it without leaving its hole, but nobody seems to have thought of publishing data about the basic units of the executive branch online in a machine-discoverable and machine-readable format.

A pathological excess of generosity spurs us to give this category an “incomplete” rather than a straight F. We expect improvement in publication of this data, pronto.

Bureaus: I

The sub-units of agencies are bureaus, and the same situation applies to data about the offices where the work of agencies get divided up. Bureaus have identifiers. It’s just that nobody publishes a list of bureaus, their parent agencies, and other key information for the Internet-connected public to use in coordinating its oversight.

Again, an “incomplete” in this area will quickly convert to an F if this gap in data publication is not soon rectified.

Programs: I

The work of the government is parceled out for actual execution in programs. Like information about their parental units, the agencies and bureaus, data that identifies and distinguishes programs is not comprehensively published.

There is some information about programs available in usable forms. The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance website (www.cfda.gov) has useful aggregation of some information on programs, but the canonical guide to government programs, along with the bureaus and agencies that run them does not exist.

This is a little bit heavier a lift than agencies and bureaus—the number of programs exceeds the number of bureaus by something like an order of magnitude (much as the number of bureaus exceeds the number of agencies). And it might be that some programs have more than one agency/bureau parent. But today’s powerful computers can keep track of these things—they can count pretty high! And the government should figure out all the programs it has, keep that list up to date, and publish it for public consumption.

Until it does, the program category gets an “incomplete” and the threat of a future F. (Or maybe a D thanks to the CFDA.)

Projects: D-

Projects are where the rubber hits the road. These are the organizational vehicles the government uses to enter into contracts and create other obligations that deliver on government services.

Some project information gets published—we finally have an item that is not incomplete—but the publication is so bad that we give this area a low grade indeed.

Information about projects can be found. You can search for projects by name on USASpending.gov, and descriptions of projects appear in USASpending/FAADS downloads. (“FAADS” is the Federal Assistance Award Data System), but there is no canonical list of projects that we could find. There should be, and there should have been for a long time now.

The generosity and patience we showed with respect to agencies, budgets, and programs has run out. There’s more than nothing here, but programs get a D-.

Budget Documents — Congress: D / White House: B+

The president’s annual budget submission and the congressional budget resolutions are the planning documents that the president and Congress use to map the direction of government spending each year. These documents are published authoritatively, and they are consistently available, which is good. They are kind-of machine-discoverable, but they are not terribly machine-readable.

The appendices to the president’s budget are published in XML format, which vastly reduces the time it takes to work with the data in them. That’s really good. But the congressional budget resolutions have no similar organization, and there is low correspondence between the budget resolutions that Congress puts out and the budget the president puts out. You would think that a person—or better yet, a computer—should be able to lay these documents side by side for comparison, but you can’t.

For its use of XML, the White House gets a B+. Congress gets a flat D.

Budget Authority—Congress: C- / Executive Branch: D

“Budget authority” is a term of art for what probably should be called “spending authority.” It’s the power to spend money, created when Congress and the president pass a law containing such authority.

Proposed budget authority is pretty darn opaque. The bills in Congress that contain proposed budget authority are consistently published online—that’s good—but they don’t highlight budget authority in machine readable ways. No computer can figure out how much budget authority is out there in pending legislation.

Existing budget authority is pretty well documented in the Treasury Department’s FAST book (Federal Account Symbols and Titles). This handy resource lists Treasury accounts and the statutes and laws that provide their budget authority. The FAST book is not terrible, but the only form we’ve found it in is PDF. PDF is terrible.

Congress can do a lot better, but because some of the publication basics are there, we give it a C-. The administration gets a D for publishing the obscure FAST book in PDF.

Ideally, there would be a nice, neat connection from budget authority right down to every outlay of funds, and back up again from every outlay to its budget authority. These connections, published online in useful ways, would allow public oversight to blossom.

Warrants, Apportionments, and Allocations: I

After Congress and the president create budget authority, that authority gets divvied up to different agencies, bureaus, programs and projects. How well documented are these processes? Not well.

An appropriation warrant is an assignment of funds by the Treasury to a treasury account to serve a particular budget authority. It’s the indication that there is money in an account for an agency to obligate and then spend.

Where is warrant data? We can’t find it. Given Treasury’s thoroughness, it probably exists, but it’s just not out there for public consumption. We’ve again generously given this area an “incomplete.”

An apportionment is an instruction from the Office of Management and Budget to an agency about how much it may spend from a treasury account in service of given budget authority in a given period of time.

We haven’t seen any data about this, and we’re less sure that there is some. There should be. And we should get to see it. Incomplete.

An allocation is a similar division of budget authority by an agency into programs or projects. We don’t see any data on this either. And we should. Incomplete.

Step up, Executive Branch, or we’ll convert these incompletes to very low grades, indeed…

Obligations: C+

Obligations are the commitments to spend money into which government agencies enter. Things like contracts to buy pens, hiring of people to write with those pens, and much, much more.

There are several different data sources that reveal obligations: FAADS/FAADS+ and CFDA, for example. But their numbers don’t match up, and—unless you’re going to have each agency uniformly publish its own data—obligations shouldn’t be published in different places. It’s hard to consider either one authoritative (even if the law says they both are). FAADS+/FPDS (via USASpending.gov), CFDA, and FPDS (the Federal Procurement Data System) are online and stable, but they are potentially incomplete because not all agencies may report to them. The use of proprietary DUNS numbers also weakens them in terms of availability.

Just sorting through all the acronyms can get you down. Ask data experts to get into the quality of each data source, and you’ll be boggled by the questions regarding which agencies’ obligations are reported at which source, whether given sources dumb down the data by excluding small dollar amounts or by aggregating data about smaller agencies. Some sources are more timely than others. Etc. etc. etc.

All these issues frustrate transparency. Data about obligations is not clean, complete and well documented. The ideal is to have one source of obligation data that combines the strengths of all the existing sources and that includes every agency, bureau, program, and project. With a decent amount of data out there, though, useful for experts, this category gets a C+.

Parties: D+

Of course, you want to know where the money is going. That is what we’re calling the “parties” category. (“Parties” sounds kinda fun, don’t it?)

Right now, reporting on parties is dominated by the DUNS number. That’s the Data Universal Numbering System, which provides a unique identifier for each business entity. It was developed by Dun & Bradstreet in the 1960s. It’s very nice to have a distinct identifier for every entity doing business with the government, but it is not very nice to have the numbering system be a proprietary one.

Parties would grade well in terms of machine-readability, which is one of the most important measures of but because it scores so low on availability, its machine-readability is kind of moot. Until the government moves to an open identifier system for recipients of funds, it will get weak grades on publication of this essential data.

Outlays: C-

For a lot of folks, the big kahuna is knowing where the money goes: outlays. An outlay—literally, the laying out of funds—satisfies an obligation. It’s the movement of money from the U.S. Treasury to the outside world.

Outlay numbers are fairly well reported after the fact and in the aggregate. All you have to do is look at the appendices to the president’s budget to see how much money has been spent in the past.

But outlay data can be much, much more detailed and timely than that. Each outlay goes to a particular party. Each outlay is done on a particular project or program at the behest of a particular bureau and agency. And each outlay occurs because of a particular budget authority. Right now these details about outlays are nowhere to be found.

Now, there are plenty of people inside the government who are very familiar with the movement of taxpayer money in the government. They will be inclined to say, “it’s more complicated than that,” and it is! But it’s going to have to get quite a bit less complicated before these processes can be called transparent.

The time do de-complicate outlays is now. It’s another feat of generosity to give this area a C-. That’s simply because there is an authoritative source for aggregate past outlay data. As the grades other areas come up, outlay data that stays the same could go down. Waaaayyy down.

Monetary and Fiscal Policy at Cato Unbound

This month we’re talking macroeconomics at Cato Unbound. Tim Congdon kicks things off with an essay about the confused legacy of John Maynard Keynes. We have been told, again and again, that the United States is in a liquidity trap – because the federal funds rate can’t go below zero.

There are several problems with this often-repeated claim. First, even at a federal funds rate of zero, other instruments of monetary policy remain effective. Second, a central bank lending rate of zero is not at all what Keynes himself meant when he used the term “liquidity trap.” Third, what Keynes did mean is a source of considerable ambiguity, as necessitated by the simplified model he presented in his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. And finally, a liquidity trap that conforms to his model may never actually occur, at least not in the strict sense.

Advancing these claims is Tim Congdon, the United Kingdom’s leading monetarist and author of the recent book Money in a Free Society. He is joined by three other prominent economists, each with a slightly different view of the issue. They are Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research; Don Boudreaux of George Mason University; and Robert Hetzel, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or at other venues. Trackbacks are enabled. We also welcome your letters and may publish them at our option. Send them to jkuznicki at cato.org

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this past week:

Follow Downsizing the Federal Government on Twitter (@DownsizeTheFeds) and connect with us on Facebook.

Information Regulation that Hasn’t Worked

When Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) proposed and passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act forty years ago, he almost certainly believed that the law would fix the problems he cited in introducing it. It hasn’t. The bulk of the difficulties he saw in credit reporting still exist today, at least to hear consumer advocates tell it.

Advocates of sweeping privacy legislation and other regulation of the information economy would do well to heed the lessons offered by the FCRA. Top-down federal regulation isn’t up to the task of designing the information society. That’s the upshot of my new Policy Analysis, “Reputation under Regulation: The Fair Credit Reporting Act at 40 and Lessons for the Internet Privacy Debate.” In it, I compare Senator Proxmire’s goals for the credit reporting industry when he introduced the FCRA in 1969 against the results of the law today. Most of the problems that existed then persist today. Some problems with credit reporting have abated and some new problems have emerged.

Credit reporting is a complicated information business. Challenges come from identity issues, judgments about biography, and the many nuances of fairness. But credit reporting is simple compared to today’s expanding and shifting information environment.

“Experience with the Fair Credit Reporting Act counsels caution with respect to regulating information businesses,” I write in the paper. “The federal legislators, regulators, and consumer advocates who echo Senator Proxmire’s earnest desire to help do not necessarily know how to solve these problems any better than he did.”

Management of the information economy should be left to the people who are together building it and using it, not to government authorities. This is not because information collection, processing, and use are free of problems, but because regulation is ill-equipped to solve them.