Topic: Government and Politics

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”

Senseless in Seattle: The Minimum-Wage Follies

Meet the Marxist behind Seattle’s wage hike,” read the headline of the lead item at CNN Money late this morning. It seems that one Kshama Sawant, an immigrant from India who earned a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University before taking a teaching position at Seattle Central Community College, is credited by the local press with being the political force behind the city council’s recent vote to raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour, phased in for large businesses by 2017 and all businesses by 2021.

A self-described Marxist, Ms. Sawant went from Occupy Wall Street to occupying Seattle City Council, the story says, adding that she was “radicalized politically by the gaping inequality she observed upon arriving in the world’s richest country.” Thus, she ran for city council last year “under the banner of Socialist Alternative, an organization that calls for ‘international struggle’ against global capitalism.”

Say this for Ms. Sawant: Whatever she learned about economics in the course of getting her degree, at least she’s not hiding her views. But what can we say about the Seattle City Council, which passed her proposal unanimously? Perhaps there’s something in the coffee out there. Or perhaps they really believe, as Ms. Sawant does, that this measure will “transfer $3 billion from businesses to low-wage workers over the next decade.”

Well it turns out that you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that economies are not static. That elementary insight from Econ 101 was captured, in fact, in an earlier lead item at CNN Money, “Seattle $15 wage plan is unfair to me.” Quoting several small business owners on what’s in store for them—and their employees—here we find Subway franchise owner Matthew Hollek lamenting that, although he has only eight employees, he’ll have to start paying them 60 percent more by 2017—while the sandwich shop next door will be immune from the law for another four years. The reason? The law counts him as a large employer because he’s part of a national chain. It looks like these “gaping inequalities” are more difficult to close than Ms. Sawant seems to have realized.

Indeed, not only are economies dynamic and is Seattle not an island, but if the benefits of a minimum wage were as good as its advocates believe, then why stop at $15? Why not $20, or $30, or more? You never hear an answer to that because there is none. For a sampling from Cato of a more serious approach to the subject, see here, here, and here.

Resources for a Potential Ruling Today in Halbig v. Sebelius

The D.C. Circuit is due to rule any day now, quite possibly today, on Halbig v. Sebelius. For those who haven’t been watching the vigil I keep over at DarwinsFool.comNewsweek calls Halbigthe case that could topple ObamaCare.”

First a little background. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act offers refundable “premium-assistance tax credits” to qualified taxpayers who purchase health insurance “through an Exchange established by the State.” The PPACA contains no language authorizing tax credits through the 34 Exchanges established by the federal government in states that declined to establish one themselves, nor does it authorize the Internal Revenue Service to treat those federally established Exchanges as if they had been “established by the State.” Offering benefits only in compliant states was proposed by numerous Republicans and Democrats in 2009, for obvious reasons: Congress cannot force states to implement federal programs, but it can create incentives for states to act, such as by offering health-insurance subsidies to residents of compliant states.

Halbig is one of four cases challenging the IRS’s decision to rewrite the statute and offer tax credits in the 34 states with federal Exchanges. The plaintiffs are individuals and employers who are injured by the IRS’s overreach because, due to the PPACA’s many inter-locking pieces, issuing those illegal tax credits subjects them to illegal penalties.

Since a ruling may come today (or some Tuesday or Friday hence, as is the D.C. Circuit’s habit), here are some materials for those who want to hit the ground running.

Update: The D.C. Circuit has handed down rulings for today, and Halbig is not among them. Click here to check on the court’s most recent rulings.

IRS IT: $2.4 Billion But Not World-Class

Perhaps the most suspicious thing about the disappearance of Lois Lerner’s emails is that the IRS is not a small business operation that cannot afford high-quality computer, email, and backup systems. It is a huge modern bureaucracy that has computer technology at the core of its operations. The IRS IT budget in 2014 is a massive $2.4 billion (page 149 here).

Here is what the administration’s most recent IRS budget says (page 150) about its IT strategy:

IT is a key enabler for efficient and effective tax administration … To ensure the public trust, the IRS also is making significant investments to secure infrastructure, data, and applications. With continued investment in new technologies and the modernization of existing IT systems, the IRS is improving service to taxpayers, achieving productivity gains, and distinguishing itself as a model of tax administration around the world. The IRS also has established world-class practices and tools to manage and implement its portfolio of IT investments more efficiently.

There is no doubt that the IRS has distinguished itself recently, but not as a model of world-class practices.

Obamacare FYI: Page 147 shows that IRS IT costs for the ACA will be $345 million in 2014. Page 32 shows that IRS IT costs for the ACA over 2010-2018 will be $1.9 billion.

How Far Can Congress Delegate Its Legislative Authority?

The Supreme Court this morning announced that in its next term it will hear oral argument in a case called Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads, which asks whether Congress, when it passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, unconstitutionally delegated its legislative power to a private entity—in this case, Amtrak. The non-delegation doctrine, grounded in the separation of powers, arises from the very first word of the Constitution, after the Preamble: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States ….” (emphasis added). Taken at face value, that clear a statement would seem to preclude much of the “lawmaking” that goes on every day in the 300 and more executive branch agencies to which Congress over the years has delegated vast regulatory authority. Unfortunately, the Court long ago held otherwise, unleashing the modern executive state, indulged no more assiduously that by President Obama with his resort to “pen and phone” as he wills his agencies to action, the will of Congress often notwithstanding.

This case, however, challenges the next step in undermining the constitutional doctrine: again, whether Congress can delegate its lawmaking authority to a private entity. In time, one hopes, the case may sow the seeds for the Court’s revisiting the main form of legislative delegation, if only by putting the issue in play. That was at least implicit in the opinion below from the D.C. Circuit, written by the irrepressible Judge Janice Rogers Brown and joined by Senior Judges Stephen Williams and David Sentelle, each of whom has been a presence at Cato. In fact, it was only three weeks ago that Judge Williams was here, commenting on Professor Philip Hamburger’s new book entitled, appropriately, Is Administrative Law Unlawful?—the broad question at issue here.

As with so many administrative law cases, DOT v. AAR involves a complex tangle of agencies and authorities that the reader will be taxed to untangle. But Judge Brown put the principle of the matter plainly: “While often phrased in terms of an affirmative prohibition [as with rights], Congress’s inability to delegate government power to private entities is really just a function of its constitutional authority not extending that far in the first place. In other words, rather than proscribing what Congress cannot do, the doctrine defines the limits on what Congress can do.” This is one to watch.

Can Private Disaster Relief Work?

In a new paper, Emily Skarbek (King’s College London) presents some evidence:

Using a novel set of comprehensive donation and expenditure data collected from archival records, this paper examines a bottom-up relief effort following one of the most devastating natural disasters of the nineteenth century: the Chicago Fire of 1871. Findings show that while there was no central government relief agency present, individuals, businesses, corporate entities and municipal governments were able to finance the relief effort though donations. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a voluntary association of agents with a stake in relief outcomes, leveraged organizational assets and constitutional rules to administer aid.

This contrasts sharply with conventional wisdom and current public policy, which assumes that private agents and local governments will “free ride” on the charitable actions of others, leading to “insufficient” relief activity unless the central government plays a large role.

In fact, private and local government efforts are often substantial, as demonstrated by this example and many others (e.g., the billions given by individuals, foundations, and corporations to help victims of Katrina, Sandy, and the Asian Tsunami).

Local efforts, moreover, are likely more efficient than those directed by a far away central government, as residents of New Orleans can readily attest.

Kim Strassel and the WSJ on the Lost IRS Emails

Earlier this week Wall Street Journal columnist Kim Strassel won a much deserved Bradley Award for her work in investigative journalism. It’s at times like this, in which revelations about evidence destruction at the Internal Revenue Service almost defy belief, that everyone interested in American governance should follow her column and the Journal editorial page.

Some highlights since the email story broke last Friday: 

* According to Strassel’s column today, the contents of Lois Lerner’s hard drive were wiped out by forces unknown “about 10 days after the Camp letter arrived,” that is to say, a letter from House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp inquiring into targeting of conservative groups. (Lerner then replied to Camp denying targeting and subsequently pleaded the Fifth before Congress.) 

* A WSJ editorial this morning points out the remarkable timing of the IRS’s begrudging disclosure last Friday that evidence central to the case has been destroyed: more than a year after the investigation began and only when a deadline was impending in which the IRS commissioner would have to certify personally that the agency had produced to Congress all relevant communications. Were responsible agency officials determined to treat this as a high-priority investigation, to be carried on in good faith and with all deliberate speed? (There was no doubt about the seriousness of the scandal, as President Obama himself admitted—or seemed to be admitting—at the time.) Or did they instead stall and deflect until the very last moment? So un-forthcoming was the agency that, according to today’s Journal editorial, IRS staffers met with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) Monday and did not tell him that the external emails of six other IRS employees had gone missing too—he found that out only later in the week when he read a press release from the House side.  

* While some IRS critics focus almost to the exclusion of all else on the possible role of the Obama White House in directing the IRS, Strassel and the WSJ correctly will not let us forget that much of the pressure on the agency was coming from Congress itself. In particular, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Elijah Cummings (both D-Md.), were among many Democrats seeking to enlist the IRS in a crackdown on politically antagonistic nonprofits.

Thank heavens for Kim Strassel and her colleagues at the WSJ, because otherwise it would seem as if few in the press were willing to focus serious investigative attention on this extraordinary scandal. (Many other press outlets have treated it as a dull page-A-18 story, run wire service coverage only, or–as with the New York Times–waited three days even to notice it.) 

People used to ask how Watergate might have turned out if the press had sided with Nixon instead of against him. Thanks to the work of Strassel and her WSJ colleagues, let’s hope we never find out.