American Mathematical Society: Hurdles to U.S. Tech. Improvement

Allow me to liberally paraphrase a piece from the current issue of the AMS’s publication “Notices.” Thereafter, I’ll contrast my version with the original.

The US presents particular obstacles to achieving technological improvement at a national scale, deriving from its social and economic diversity and also from an entrenched tradition of entrepreneurship and private industry which precludes a federal role in any primary initiatives. Yet to achieve real improvement at scale requires some national coherence.

The laws of physics are the same in Florida and Montana; it makes little sense in a highly mobile population for more than one cell phone technology to exist within our borders. It would be like building a national railway system with different gauge tracks in each state.

Readers will no doubt realize that this argument is undermined by the substantial advances Americans have witnessed in Cell phone technology over the years, despite—perhaps even because of—the existence of alternative suppliers developing different hardware and operating systems. All the while, we are somehow still able to call/text one another without worrying whether our interlocutor is an Apple addict or an aficionado of Android. And scale hasn’t proven to be a problem. Apple and Google have managed to serve very, very large numbers of people indeed.

ALJs in Limbo

A number of cases have been filed recently against the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), challenging its use of in-house administrative law judges (ALJs).  As I discussed in my earlier post on this topic, the SEC’s use of ALJs has come under close scrutiny lately because of concerns that, in the wake of a provision in Dodd-Frank expanding ALJs’ power, the SEC has elected to use its in-house procedures more frequently and that this use may have increased the SEC’s ability to prevail in enforcement actions.  Of particular concern is the fact that administrative proceedings lack many of the protections for defendants that litigation in federal courts provide, including: the option of having the case decided by a jury; access to the government’s evidence; and the ability to exclude certain evidence traditionally believed to be unreliable (such as hearsay).    

While a number of these cases have been dismissed, Monday finally garnered a win: Charles Hill succeeded in getting a federal court to issue an injunction that prohibits the SEC from continuing its case against him using its in-house ALJ.  Having been charged with insider trading and brought before an SEC ALJ, Hill filed suit against the SEC in federal court claiming the administrative proceeding was unconstitutional on three different grounds.  Although the court disagreed with two of his arguments, it found in his favor on the third – that the ALJs’ appointment violates the appointments clause because ALJs are “inferior officers.”

Marriage and the Court, Yesterday and Today

As we await a Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, we take note that 48 years ago today the Court struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.

Mildred Jeter, a black woman (though she also had Native American heritage and may have preferred to think of herself as Indian), married Richard Loving, a white man, in the District of Columbia in 1958. When they returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, they were arrested under Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, which dated to colonial times and had been reaffirmed in the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Lovings were indicted and pled guilty. They were sentenced to a year in jail; the state’s law didn’t just ban interracial marriage, it made such marriage a criminal offense. However, the trial judge suspended the sentence on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together for 25 years. In his opinion, the judge stated:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Five years later they filed suit to have their conviction overturned. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which struck down Virginia’s law unanimously. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the court,

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival.

Here’s how ABC News reported the case on June 12, 1967:

African Free Trade Zone Is Good News - If Properly Implemented

According to the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian, “African leaders on Wednesday signed a potentially historic, 26-nation free-trade pact to create a common market spanning half the continent, from Cairo to Cape Town. The deal on the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) is the culmination of five years of negotiations to set up a framework for preferential tariffs easing the movement of goods in an area that is home to 625-million people…. The deal will integrate three existing trade blocs – the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) – whose countries have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $1-trillion.”

“Potentially historic” is the right term for what could be a greatly beneficial agreement. African parliaments will have two years to ratify the agreement – and that is the easy part. Proper implementation and enforcement will be much more difficult in countries with deeply underdeveloped institutions of rule of law and protection of private property. Still, the TFTA is a step in the right direction, for it signals an important ideological shift on the part of the African elite. Historically, African governments have been deeply skeptical of free trade and capitalism. Instead, they preferred protectionism and state-led development. To the extent that they were interested in trade, the African governments emphasized access to Western markets, while eschewing liberalization of their own. The consequences were catastrophic. As I wrote in a 2005 Cato paper,  

[T]rade liberalization in the developed world as a cure for world poverty is often overemphasized. Simply abandoning developed-world protectionism would not substantially change the lives of the people in the poorest parts of the developing world. That is particularly true of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where the main causes of impoverishment are internal. SSA is not poor because of lack of access to world markets. SSA is poor because of political instability and because of a lack of policies and institutions, such as private property rights, that are necessary for the market economy to flourish.

Despite substantial declines in applied and bound tariffs throughout the world, protectionism [in SSA] is still very much alive. Developing countries’ average tariff rates are more than three times higher than those of developed countries… According to the WTO, only 10 percent of African (including sub-Saharan African) exports were intraregional (i.e.: traded to other African countries). In contrast, 68 percent of exports from countries in Western Europe were exported to other Western European countries. Similarly, 40 percent of North American exports were to other countries in North America.

It is hypocritical for African leaders to call for greater access to global markets while rejecting trade openness at home. It is also self-defeating, because domestic protectionism contributes to perpetuating African poverty. Research shows that countries with the greatest freedom to trade tend to grow faster than countries that restrict trading. SSA governments have complete control over the reduction of their own trade barriers. If they are truly serious about the benefits of trade liberalization, they can immediately free trade relations among SSA countries and with the rest of the world. They should do so regardless of what the developed world does.

What Explains the Flow of Unlawful Immigration?

The flow of unauthorized immigrants to the United States has collapsed.  The apprehension of illegal immigrants by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the best proxy measurement of the flow of such people, along the Southwest Border is way down (see below). 

All Apprehensions on Southwest Border

                       

Source: Customs and Border Protection.

What explains this?  A number of factors are at play.  Economic conditions in the United States, economic or other conditions in other countries, and immigration enforcement all explain part of the decrease in unauthorized immigration over the years.    

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) gives most of the credit to beefed up immigration enforcement along the border.  Krikorian seconds a quote by Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute, who says:

Every month or quarter that the economy continues to improve and unauthorized immigration doesn’t pick up supports the theory that border security is a bigger factor, and it’s less about the economy and we have moved into a new era.

But if immigration enforcement is the main reason why unauthorized immigration collapsed, why are the numbers of unlawful immigrants from countries Other than Mexico (OTMs) increasing?  CBP apprehensions don’t discriminate based on country of origin because they can’t tell where the immigrants are from until they’re apprehended.

Misinformed on Common Core? This Won’t Set You Straight

Whenever someone declares opponents of the Common Core “misinformed,” get ready: there’s probably a lot more misinformation coming your way. Case in point, a new offering from Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin attacking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) over his Common Core stance in a recent Des Moines Register op-ed. Her post is chock-full of misinformation, ironically intended to make Core opponents seem confused.

Start with this, in which Rubin asserts that Walker tried to conflate overall federal education funding with the Common Core:

As virtually all GOP contenders but Jeb Bush do, he then takes a swing at Common Core. “Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core. Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.” This is confusing since Common Core per se does not affect how and where money is coming from.

This isn’t actually confusing when you read Walker’s piece, at least the online version (which I assume is like the print version, and is also likely the version Rubin read.) Why? Because Walker separated his ideas into paragraphs, which Rubin eliminated in the quote above, and the placement of the paragraphs makes clear that Walker’s Common Core thought and his federal funding thought were separate ideas. Directly from Walker’s piece:

Now, more than ever, we need to push big, bold reforms to improve our schools. If we can do it in Wisconsin, there is no reason we can’t push positive education reforms across the country.

Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core.

Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.

And every student in the our [sic] nation’s capital should have access to a great education. Therefore, we should expand the options for families in the District of Columbia to choose the school that is best for their children.

Rubin proceeds to make the funding befuddlement worse by writing, “It is Race to the Top that affords states money if they can show either through Common Core or other standards that they are setting high expectations for students.” First, the Race to the Top that provided the primary impetus for states to adopt the Core de facto only allowed the Core – not “other standards” – saying that only states that were part of a standards-and-assessment consortium including “a majority of the States in the country” (p. 59689) could get maximum points in the funding contest. Only the Core met that criterion, and it was clearly the intent of many Core supporters and the Obama administration to have RTT push the Core specifically. That first Race to the Top, however, was basically a very powerful one-shot deal, not one that continuously “affords states money.” It was subsequent waivers out of No Child Left Behind requirements – which let states either use the Core or have a state university system certify state standards as “college- and career-ready” – that are currently in effect and offer two standards options.

Federal Technology Failures

A new GAO report describes failures in the federal government’s information technology (IT) activities. The government spends $80 billion annually on IT. These “investments frequently fail, incur cost overruns and schedule slippages, or contribute little to mission-related outcomes,” concludes GAO.

The new report summarized some of the failures:

  • the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Expeditionary Combat Support System, which was canceled in December 2012, after spending more than a billion dollars and failing to deploy within 5 years of initially obligating funds;
  • the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative Network program, which was ended in January 2011, after the department obligated more than $1 billion to the program, because it did not meet cost-effectiveness and viability standards;
  • the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise program, which was intended to be delivered by 2014 at a total estimated cost of $609 million, but was terminated in October 2011 due to challenges in managing the program;
  • the Office of Personnel Management’s Retirement Systems Modernization program, which was canceled in February 2011, after spending approximately $231 million on the agency’s third attempt to automate the processing of federal employee retirement claims;
  • the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, DOD, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was a tri-agency weather satellite program that the White House Office of Science and Technology stopped in February 2010 after the program spent 16 years and almost $5 billion; and
  • the VA Scheduling Replacement Project, which was terminated in September 2009 after spending an estimated $127 million over 9 years.

The GAO attributes the problems to “a lack of disciplined and effective management and inadequate executive-level oversight.” That is certainly true, but I would also point to more fundamental problems with the nature of government bureaucracy, which I discussed in testimony yesterday.