Topic: Cato Publications

Getting to Government Transparency

There’s technology policy, and there’s how technology affects policy.

That’s why I found my colleague Chris Edwards’ recent Tax & Budget Bulletin so interesting.  He discusses a number of federal databases that bring some transparency to federal spending, including the Federal Assistance Award Data System and the Federal Audit Clearinghouse.  Between them, they reveal quite a bit of information about federal spending and the staggering number and amount of subsidies and grants handed out by the federal government each year.

Edwards also hails a proposal by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to create a comprehensive Internet database of federal contracts, grants, and other payments.  It would be a great leap forward in terms of transparency about spending, like the Thomas system was for the legislative process.

Advocates from across the political spectrum want a government that “works.”  Most believe that their perspective would “win” if the politics and government worked.  Whatever the case, transparency is widely agreed to be good — the more the better.

Thomas was an improvement.  Yet it hasn’t transformed the legislative process the way some might have hoped.  Lawmaking remains murky and confusing to the vast majority of the public.  Even if it was done well, a federal spending database probably wouldn’t transform the politics of government spending either.

Information technology will surely help, but transparency isn’t enough.  The twin problems that must be overcome are rational ignorance and rational inaction.  It’s hard to learn about government, and hard to affect it, so people make better uses of their time.  Operating a lemonade stand would be far more lucrative and enjoyable for most people than campaigning for a tax reduction.  (The piece linked here is a good discussion of rational ignorance.)

There are some efforts to defeat the twin plagues of ignorance and inaction.  GovTrack.us, for example, attacks ignorance with more information presented more accessibly than Thomas.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently took after inaction with a wiki devoted to campaigns

My favorite — because I run it — is WashingtonWatch.com.  It displays pending legislation with its price-tag per person, per family, etc. and it gives visitors a chance to air their views.  A little run at ignorance, a little run at inaction.  Given time, it could blossom into transformed government.  In the meantime, the more transparency the better.

Ready to Pay More for Longer Lines at the DMV?

The Decatur (Alabama) Daily News reports that a server shut-down froze driver licensing operations on Friday.

Lines that tend to be long on the best days meandered double-file through hallways at the Morgan County Courthouse after a computer server in Montgomery shut down at about 12:45 p.m. The faulty server, which came back online at 3, is owned and maintained by Oregon-based Digimarc Co., a state contractor, according to [the Alabama Department of Public Safety].

Digimarc is one of several companies that are in the business of licensing and regulating driving. Another cited in the story is AAMVA, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which operates a variety of driver surveillance programs under the AAMVAnet brand.

AAMVAnet is the conduit most states use to access various databases involved in driver license applications and renewals. Alabama uses the service for commercial driver license information, problem-driver point systems and Social Security number verification.

AAMVA is particularly interesting because it styles itself as a neutral interlocutor on motor vehicle administration, police traffic services and highway safety. But according to its non-profit disclosure form, its $30 million in 2003 revenue was comprised of $11 million in government grants and more than $14 million from “contracts/user fees” - most of it likely from operation of the Commercial Driver License Information System.

Anyone who understands the role of self-interest in guiding organizations - even ‘non-profits’ like AAMVA - must recognize that this is an advocate for increased driver regulation and surveillance, most recently through the REAL ID Act’s national identification card. If REAL ID is implemented, AAMVA stands to increase its revenue ten times over.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt told the Decatur Daily News, “As more and more states go through AAMVAnet, it hasn’t been able to handle the volume.” But AAMVA intends to move you into the national ID program - long lines or not - using your state and federal tax dollars.

More on AAMVA and the REAL ID Act can be found in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misuderstood.

Two Former Police Chiefs on Overkill

Joseph McNamara — a 35-year law enforcement official, including 18 years as a police chief in Kansas City and San Jose — has kindly praised my recent report on police militarization.

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper also had some kind things to say about the paper.

The terrific group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has also put out an extended press release and endorsement.

Capitalism Saves

The Sunday New York Times has a great article — the first of a series on aging — titled “So Big and Healthy Nowadays That Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You.” Reporter Gina Kolata begins with this 19th-century biography:

Valentin Keller enlisted in an all-German unit of the Union Army in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1862. He was 26, a small, slender man, 5 feet 4 inches tall, who had just become a naturalized citizen. He listed his occupation as tailor.

A year later, Keller was honorably discharged, sick and broken. He had a lung ailment and was so crippled from arthritis in his hips that he could barely walk.

His pension record tells of his suffering. “His rheumatism is so that he is unable to walk without the aid of crutches and then only with great pain,” it says. His lungs and his joints never got better, and Keller never worked again.

He died at age 41 of “dropsy,” which probably meant that he had congestive heart failure, a condition not associated with his time in the Army. His 39-year-old wife, Otilia, died a month before him of what her death certificate said was “exhaustion.”

But his modern-day descendant, living in the same town of Hamilton, is healthy and going strong at 45. Kolata interviews doctors, economists, and gerontologists to find out why Americans are taller, heavier, healthier, and living longer. Describing the research of Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel and his colleagues on Union Army veterans, she notes:

They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel said….

People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. “In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85,” he said. Now the average age is 62.

Much of this research has surprised scholars:

Life expectancy, for example, has been a real surprise, says Eileen M. Crimmins, a professor of gerontology and demographic research at the University of Southern California. “When I came of age as a professional, 25 years ago, basically the idea was three score years and 10 is what you get,” Dr. Crimmins said. Life span was “this rock, and you can’t touch it.”

“But,” she added, “then we started noticing that in fact mortality is plummeting.”

So why? Why has this epochal change — what Fogel calls “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth” — happened? Kolata discusses the benefits of better nutrition, cheaper food, vaccines, and antibiotics. But still:

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said David M. Cutler, a health economist at Harvard. “Maybe it’s the trillion-dollar question. And there is not a received answer that everybody agrees with.”

Kolata is a science reporter, so she’s looking for a scientific answer, and she’s found several that contribute to our health and longevity. But she’s missed the forest. What is it that started changing in the United States and northern Europe in the past few centuries? (Fogel’s book on the general trend is The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.) Technology, yes. Nutrition and antibiotics and a better understanding of diet and exercise, absolutely. But what caused those things to appear after, as Fogel says, 7,000 generations?

Capitalism.

The introduction of the institutions of economic freedom in the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and then the rest of the world beginning around 1700 caused what historian Steven Davies calls a “wealth explosion.” A great part of the unprecedented wealth creation went into sanitation and more abundant food and later into the research necessary to produce vaccines and antibiotics. Those institutions include secure private property, the rule of law, open markets, and economic freedom generally — or what Adam Smith called “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Capitalism has made the West rich and thus healthier and longer-lived. It could do the same for Africa, Asia, and the Arab world.

Kolata overlooked this point. Her article never mentions capitalism, freedom, or even wealth as an answer to the trillion-dollar question. But it’s still a great report on just how much better off we are. For more data on such trends, check out It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon.

Is Opposition to the Bush Doctrine “Isolationism”?

The online version of the New York Times runs the following headline for its story covering its poll on Americans’ attitudes on foreign policy:

Americans Showing Isolationist Streak, Poll Finds

The substance of the poll shows several things: Americans want out of Iraq, they don’t want to deploy US servicemen to try to make peace in Lebanon, and they don’t think that it’s our responsibility to go around the world attempting to force peace on warring nations.

Is that really “isolationism”? I covered the topic of “isolationism” earlier this year when a Pew poll interpreted Americans’ desire to “mind our own business internationally” as a sign of isolationism. (Should we not mind our own business internationally???)

I’ll say one thing: If the media keeps portraying the choice as between the Bush doctrine or “isolationism,” then isolationism is going to end up with a lot more adherents than any of us thought.

FristBlog’s Rx: Focus on the Donut

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently launched a health policy blog. The latest post (by “Sailor”) complains that people are focusing on Medicare Part D’s donut hole rather than the tasty donut itself:

The most amazing criticism is that there is a donut hole. It is amazing that those who argue this is a defect in part D fail to understand there used to never be any donut at all – and they just continue to focus on the hole rather than the enormous benefit (donut) that never previously existed for seniors.

I’m not sure that criticism of the ‘donut hole’ is all that amazing. As Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman explains in an upcoming book (Medicare Meets Mephistopheles), Democrats have made their careers by using Medicare to pass out donuts. What did Frist, Inc., expect Democrats would do once Republicans got in on the donut racket? Quit? Or up the ante?

Is this why Dr. Frist got into politics? To hand out donuts?

Gerecht Misses the Mark

Forgive the length, but below is my humble contribution to the debate that is now heating up over at Cato Unbound.

It is odd that Reuel Marc Gerecht criticizes my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter for looking at America’s successes in deterring totalitarian regimes with nuclear weapons for insights on the prospect of deterring the Iranian totalitarian regime, should it get nuclear weapons. Mr. Gerecht offers soliloquies on the (genuine) oddity of twelver Shi’ism (as does Mr. Luttwak, more briefly), but somehow misses the proper starting point for a discussion of US foreign policy: US interests and the costs and benefits of available US policy options. Indeed, Mr. Gerecht does not deign, at any point in this discussion, to evaluate even briefly the prospective costs and benefits of his preferred policy option: preventive war.

Mr. Gerecht points out that “in a pre-9/11 world, Shi’ite and Sunni radical Islamic terrorism should have been one of those things that scared us the most.” He then explains that “to President Clinton’s shame, he couldn’t compel himself into preemptive military action against the rising Sunni menace. Yet it would appear in 2006 such holy warriors scare Mr. Carpenter not much at all. They should.” (my emphasis)

It is a useful rhetorical device for Gerecht to switch back and forth between Sunni al Qaeda terrorists and the Shiite government in Tehran, but the historical record deserves to be corrected as to Carpenter’s concern about terrorism.

To that end, I would humbly point him to Carpenter’s 1995 Handbook for Congress article in which he warned that

Americans have become targets of international terrorism. Unfortunately, that danger is likely to grow rather than recede in the coming years…

Back to Mr. Gerecht’s case for war. Mr. Gerecht implies that there is something inherent in the regime in Tehran—whether theological or political—that is inevitably pushing us toward conflict with Iran. In so doing, he chooses to ignore the decades-long US policy of meddling in Iran’s internal politics and trying to overthrow the government there; one could start with the CIA-backed coup in 1953 and the 1964 SOFA agreement, to the efforts of Gerecht’s colleague Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, to allocate millions of dollars to attempt to overthrow the Tehran government, to the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, to…well, to last week’s meeting at the White House between Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Richard Perle, and the NSC’s Eliot Abrams, with a host of dissidents whose publicly stated goal is to overthrow Iran’s government. And to think that the Iranians believe that we are trying to overthrow their government!

As for a brief commentary on the prudence of various policy options, I would refer to a useful analogy offered by Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Michael Rubin, in referring to our options in dealing with the Islamic republic:

When faced with a hornet’s nest, the choice to destroy it or leave it alone is better than the compromise of lightly tapping it with a stick.

Agreed. For his part, Mr. Rubin did us the courtesy of openly advocating a full-blown regime-change type assault against Iran, but it is not clear whether Mr. Gerecht is advocating destroying the Islamic republic, or just tapping it with a stick. We would do quite well to learn whether Mr. Gerecht is only in favor of striking the nuclear facilities in Iran, or also attacking the locations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the missile sites, the presumed chemical and biological weapons sites, and the Iranian leadership. Of course, this would lead to a discussion of targeting, which would put hundreds, if not thousands of aim points on the table, and we would ultimately be talking (once again) of a preventive war to remove a foreign bogeyman who supposedly poses an intolerable threat to this, the most powerful country in the history of the planet.

Finally, one is hard pressed to imagine how Mr. Gerecht will explain away the reckless and shameful incompetence of the hawk faction in the Bush administration as described by the Washington Post. The Iranians approached the Bush administration directly in 2002 (after the ridiculous “axis of evil” speech!) and proposed cooperating against al Qaeda, informing the US of the identities of 290 members of al Qaeda that Iran had captured and sent back to their countries. The Iranians proposed further cooperation against al Qaeda. The Bush administration’s response?

Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria… Participants said Bush’s divided national security team was unable to agree on an answer. Some believe important opportunities were lost.

Why would Iran make such overtures? Moreover, even after being rebuffed, Iran cooperated with the US on al Qaeda by transferring some of them to Afghan custody, and provided the US information on more of them. More to the point, why would the Bush administration turn them down, if they were serious about diplomacy?

The sad irony is that there is no good reason that even hawks like Mr. Gerecht should oppose offering a grand bargain to the Iranians. If the issue is indeed the nuclear program, not the regime, then we lose nothing by putting a deal on the table. We offer an irrevocable international inspections regime of Iran’s existing nuclear program, along with all attendant safeguards, in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of the regime in Tehran, lifting of the US sanctions, and a public pledge not to attack Iran unprovoked. If the Iranians turn such a deal down, there is nothing (except prudence) that would prevent us from then attacking Iran. But Mr. Gerecht seems uninterested in serious diplomacy as a matter of principle.

Mr. Gerecht’s original essay, in addition to the lengthy description of the weirdness of the Iranian government, offers little in the way of policy guidance. Gerecht’s preferred policy, for the Bush administration to “begin a crash course in covert and overt Iranian democracy-promotion, firing all those in the bureaucracies who seek to sabotage the mission” is one that he admits “isn’t going to happen.” And that tells us a good deal about its viability. Or does Mr. Gerecht believe that the Bush administration is somehow at peace with the Islamic republic going nuclear? If so, why all the public fuss about it?

So we end up back at what has become the default neoconservative option, preventive war. Gerecht should at the very least answer Carpenter’s worry about how this third US-initiated war against an Islamic country (this one truly unilateral) in the past five years would go over in the Muslim world. Would it have a negative effect, a positive effect, or no effect on the allure of anti-American terrorism for young Muslim males? Would it deflate, or substantiate the arguments of Osama bin Laden about America’s intentions? Would it help, or harm the US mission in Iraq? What would the Iranian response likely be: for America, for Israel, or for Iran’s neighbors? Would another war serve the national interests of the United States more than it harms them?

These are the obvious questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Gerecht provides no answers.