Today’s Washington Times has a long interview with former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay in which he talks about the problems facing the Republican Party and his efforts to help rebuild it. As I have written, there is no doubt that the GOP is facing many problems today, many of them due to the big-government conservatism brought about in part by…Tom DeLay.

This is after all, the same Tom DeLay who:

  • Presided over an unprecedented spending binge by Congressional Republicans. In fact, DeLay was a cheerleader for using earmarks to buy votes for Republican candidates in competitive districts;
  • Twisted arms and threatened dissenters in order to pass the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the first new entitlement program in 40 years;
  • Helped sidetrack Social Security reform;
  • Helped start the “K Street Project,” a cynical exercise in vote buying that led to much of the corruption that plagued Republicans in recent years;
  • Once said that “there is simply no fat left to cut in the federal budget.”

If Republicans and/or conservatives really want to recapture their small government credentials, the might start by ignoring Tom DeLay.

ID Checks are About Control, Not Security

If there was ever any doubt that ID checks at airports are about control and not security, the Transportation Security Administration is clearing that up. Starting June 21, it says, “passengers that willfully refuse to provide identification at security checkpoint [sic] will be denied access to the secure area of airports.”

The claim is that this initiative is “the latest in a series designed to facilitate travel for legitimate passengers while enhancing the agency’s risk-based focus - on people, not things.” So let’s take a moment to look at how refusing airport access to the willful enhances security.

… OK! We’re done!

No terrorist or criminal would draw attention to him or herself by obstinately refusing an ID check. This is only done by the small coterie of civil libertarians and security experts who can’t stand the security pantomime that is airport identification checking. The rest of the people traveling without ID have lost theirs - and TSA officials at airports have no way of knowing which is which.

This new rule will do nothing to improve airport security, but watch for the incident when a TSA agent “doesn’t believe” someone who has truly lost his or her driver’s license and tries to strand a traveler in a faraway city.

A Free Market Gem in Guatemala

The L.A. Times has a very fine article today on Francisco Marroquín University, Guatemala’s libertarian institution of higher learning, and its founder, Manuel “Muso” Ayau.

Those of us who have visited UFM can testify as to the passion for liberty that fills the place. It’s certainly a free market gem in the midst of Central America.

Swire on Cybercrime Underenforcement

Peter Swire of the Center for American Progress has a paper out called “No Cop on the Beat: Underenforcement in E-Commerce and Cybercrime.” He identifies how local law enforcement lacks the ability and incentive to address various wrongs done on the Internet because of their complexity and their multi-jurisdictional nature.

Swire has identified a real problem. Just like everyone else, law enforcement struggles to keep up in the changing online environment. And it’s true that local law enforcement lacks incentive to expend efforts going after a distant cybercrime ring for the benefit of one local complainant and thousands of strangers.

(He calls this a “commons problem” and I understand how he means it to illustrate that law enforcement personnel and organizations are economic actors. Crime victims are a sort of public good to those organizations and they can’t enjoy the benefits of caring for most of those who would benefit from their work. I think this fits more neatly in the public choice box: local law enforcement in one jurisdiction doesn’t get any benefit — budgetary, political, or otherwise — from helping strangers, so they’re less inclined to do so.)

Swire’s conclusion is that there should be more federal law enforcement — such as by the Federal Trade Commission and the the Justice Department — or “federated” law enforcement, combining state and federal authorities: “A more federated approach recognizes the usefulness of enforcement task forces that draw on multiple jurisdictions. Federal‐state task forces, for instance, have been used widely for drug prosecutions and, more recently, in fighting terrorism.”

While these are logical conclusions, I would be reluctant to call for greater federal law enforcement. There isn’t authority for it in the Constitution, and the uses of “federated” law enforcement he identifies — in the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror“ — have not been shining examples we ought to follow.

I suspect that Swire would class this as an objection he calls “We Don’t Want Enforcement,” of which he identifies two strains. One is the extent to which some of these “harms” are worthy of enforcement. This is a strong objection, not so much to Swire’s thesis, but to a second one that’s implicit. Swire is not just calling for federal or federated law enforcement aimed at protecting the public from violations of their rights (which manifest themselves as legally cognizable “harms”); he’s classing all kinds of mischief as “harms” to dramatically broaden the sweep of the federal law enforcement task.

Consider this strange circumlocution: “The focus here is on online fraud, malicious software, and other harms that are carried out through the Internet.” In the world of natural language “harms” are “caused,” not “carried out.” Malicious software is “distributed” or “propagated,” not “carried out.” Fraud and malicious software often cause harm, but sometimes do not.

Classing malicious software as a “harm” would make it actionable in the abstract, such as through prescriptive software regulation. If this is what he’s talking about, Swire should surface it and talk about it rather than wedging bad behavior with potential harmful results into the term “harm.” (He’s not alone — see this post and the resulting comments discussing whether increased exposure to risk is a “harm.”)

A second strain of the “We Don’t Want Enforcement” objection is a melange of privacy concerns that Swire would address with due process and privacy rules.

A third strain (with some relation to the privacy concern) emerges from the “commons”/public choice dynamic that Swire identified so astutely as part of the cause of the problem. Bureaucracies and their members are economic actors, and a greater federal law enforcement regime would naturally begin to seek greater powers from the moment it came into existence. This is very much at play in the “wars” on drugs and terror, where federal law enforcement agencies seek much more to promote their institutional interests in growth than the safety, freedom, and prosperity of the people. “We Don’t Want Federal Bureaucracies Doing Law Enforcement” is a much stronger objection than Swire recognizes.

My main concern, though, sounds in moral hazard. Should a federal law enforcement apparatus emerge too early, or occupy fields where it is not absolutely essential, people and organizations that should be responsible for their own security will shunt that responsibility off to the government. Supine and seemingly incompetent, they will fall victim to many crimes and harms that they would otherwise have defended themselves against.

I often analogize the development of security in the online environment to security in the offline environment. Imagine if you were building streets, houses, and buildings from scratch, never having seen such things before. It would take some time to recognize the value of doors, windows, and walls in preventing crime. When you’ve got that window in place, you also need to close the latch, etc.

An alternative to all this distributed learning is to post law enforcement on every corner of every street, or in front of every house. But having a cop on every corner is expensive and hard to administer. There’s risk of corruption, and laziness, and so on. The best security is provided by the most interested actors, and I’d be loathe to have federal law enforcement communicate that there is anyone more responsible than software companies, online service providers, payment systems, and individuals for securing the online environment.

There is some role for the federal government in preventing and detecting multi-jurisdictional and international crimes. I wouldn’t rush to embrace it, or to class a broad array of behaviors as “harms” so that the federal law enforcement role mushrooms into an ineffective and costly “War on Cybercrime.”

Forked-Tongue Express

Anybody reading McCain’s answers to an executive-power questionairre published in the Boston Globe last December could be excused for thinking that a McCain administration would represent at least a slight departure from the Bush team’s extravagant theories of presidential prerogative. “I don’t think the president has the right to disobey any law,” he said when asked about FISA.  Alas, it seems that McCain has lately discovered the wondrous penumbras and emanations issuing from Article II.  Charlie Savage has the goods


Is Climate Change the World’s Most Important Problem? Part 2

Despite using the World Health Organization’s scientifically suspect estimates of the present-day death toll “attributable” to climate change, we saw in Part 1 that climate change contributed less than 0.3% of the global death toll. At least 12 other factors related to food, nutrition and the environment contribute more. 

Here I’ll examine whether climate change is likely to be the most important global public health problem if not today, at least in the foreseeable future.  

Once again I’ll rely on analyses done by scientists who are not part of the community of skeptics. Specifically, I’ll use estimates of the global impacts of climate change from the British-government sponsored “Fast Track Assessments” (FTAs) which have been published in the peer reviewed literature. Significantly, they share many authors with the IPCC’s latest assessment. For example, the lead author of the FTA’s study on agricultural and hunger impacts is Professor Martin Parry, the Chairman of the IPCC WG 2, responsible for the section of the IPCC report dealing with impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. 

I’ll adopt the FTAs’ estimates for the sake of argument, despite some flaws in their analyses, noted here

I’ll also consider “the foreseeable future” to extend to 2085 since the FTAs’ estimates purport to provide estimates for that date, despite reservations.  In fact, a paper commissioned for the Stern Review (p.74) noted that “changes in socioeconomic systems cannot be projected semi-realistically for more than 5–10 years at a time.” [Yes, that’s the same Stern that did a climate change analysis extending to 2200, or was it 2300? No matter.] 

In the following figure, using mortality statistics from the WHO, I have converted into annual mortality the FTAs’ estimates for the population at risk (PAR) for hunger, malaria (which is responsible for an estimated 75% of the global burden of disease due to the main vector-borne diseases), and coastal flooding. Details of the methodology are provided here

In this figure, the left-most bar shows cumulative global mortality for the three risk categories in 1990 (the baseline year used in the FTAs). The four “stacked” bars on the right provide mortality estimates projected for 2085 for each of the four main IPCC scenarios. These scenarios are arranged from the warmest on the left (for the so-called A1FI scenario which is projected to increase the average global temperature by 4.0°C as indicated by the numbers below each stacked bar) to the coolest on the right (for the B1 scenario; projected temperature increase of 2.1°C).  Each stacked bar gives estimates of the additional global mortality due to climate change on the top, and that due to other non-climate change-related factors on the bottom. The entire bar gives the total global mortality estimate. 

To keep the figure simple, I only show estimates for the maximum (upper bound) estimates of the mortality due to climate change for the three risk factors under consideration. 

This figure shows that climate change’s maximum estimated contribution to mortality from hunger, malaria and coastal flooding in 2085 will vary from 4%-10%, depending on the scenario. 

In the next figure I show the global population at risk (PAR) of water stress for the base year (1990) and 2085 for the four scenarios.  

A population is deemed to be at risk if available water supplies fall below 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year.  

For 2085, two bars are shown for each scenario. The left bar shows the net change in the population at risk due to climate change alone, while the right bar shows the total population at risk after accounting for both climate change and non-climate-change related factors. The vertical lines, where they exist, indicate the “spread” in projections of the additional PAR due to climate change.  

This figure shows that climate change reduces the population at risk of water stress! This is because global warming will decrease rainfall in some areas but serendipitously increase it in other, but more populated, areas.   

The figure also suggests that the warmest scenario would result in the greatest reduction in net population at risk.  

[Remarkably, the original source was reticent to explicitly point out that climate change might reduce the net population at risk for water stress. See here (pages 12-14 or 1034-1036).].  Thus, through the foreseeable future (very optimistically 2085), other factors will continue to outweigh climate change with respect to human welfare as characterized by (a) mortality for hunger, malaria and coastal flooding, and (b) population at risk for waters stress. 

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at a couple of ecological indicators to determine whether climate change may over the “foreseeable future” be the most important problem from the ecological perspective, if not from the public health point of view.