Some Myth-Busting Is Quite Revealing

After DHS Secretary Chertoff’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week (at which he was apparently rebuked for “bullying” states on REAL ID compliance) he sat down with a group of bloggers to discuss things.

Congratulations are due the Secretary for making himself available in an open forum like this, especially because it allows us some insight into his thinking. It makes more clear why he and his colleague Stewart Baker feel a need to engage in so much REAL ID “myth-busting.” Though I have assumed their comprehension of the problems with REAL ID, perhaps I have been mistaken, as Secretary Chertoff does not exhibit a good sense of information technology or the information economy.

Here’s the myth that Secretary Chertoff purports to bust:

I had someone say to me today, “Well, when you have these REAL ID licenses with a machine-readable zone … it’s gonna be used to track people. People can skim it. And they can steal it. And then they can use it to follow you around.” Now this is a fantasy. This is just not true.

The Secretary overstates the argument and so shades into attacking a straw man, but the context is conversational. So let’s look at what the real argument is, and then at the Secretary’s responses. I touched on the question of tracking in my testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee:

There are machine-readable components like magnetic strips and bar codes on many licenses today. Their types, locations, designs, and the information they carry differs from state to state. For this reason, they are not used very often. If all identification cards and licenses were the same, there would be economies of scale in producing card readers, software, and databases to capture and use this information. Americans would inevitably be asked more and more often to produce a REAL ID card, and share the data from it, when they engaged in various governmental and commercial transactions.

In turn, others will capitalize on the information collected in state databases and harvested using REAL ID cards. Speaking to the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee last week, Anne Collins, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts said, “If you build it they will come.” Massed personal information will be an irresistible attraction to the Department of Homeland Security and many other governmental entities, who will dip into data about us for an endless variety of purposes.

This is not an argument that the currently proposed REAL ID license would be read surreptitiously, as might happen with an RFID-chipped card. (The Secretary says that REAL ID currently does not require RFID, but neglects to mention that the “Enhanced Driver’s License,” which satisfies REAL ID, has one.) The argument is that a great deal more data about us will be collected.

This will include “meta-data” - information about the collection of information, such as time, place, purpose, collecting entity, and so on. Combined identity data and meta-data form footprints about our comings and goings. These footprints, collected in interoperable databases, combine to form tracks.

Perhaps it’s a complicated argument, but it’s a coherent one: REAL ID would lead to tracking of law-abiding Americans.

Nothing the Secretary says conveys that he’s aware of meta-data or actual data collection processes. He says that the machine-readable zone (or MRZ) is “nothing more than the information on the face of the license. I already have a reader for the license - it’s called my eye - and I can read what’s on your license. So therefore there’s nothing I’m going to get out of the MRZ that I can’t get from the face of the license.”

Alas, even this isn’t quite true. The regulation prescribes certain minimum data elements for the MRZ, but doesn’t restrict the use of others, and it doesn’t require states to restrict the content of the MRZ to only what is on the face of the license. The MRZ could lead to tracking of people and their activities based on their race, for example, a data element many states currently include in their MRZs. Despite receiving comments concerned with this during the rulemaking process - oh, and in congressional testimony - DHS declined to prohibit including race in the MRZ of REAL IDs.

Card readers are not just little electric eyeballs. They record information in digital form. This means that identical copies of these records are easy to store, easy to compile, easy to transfer, and easy to reuse. Collecting information in digital form is materially different from collecting information in analog form. Most people who work with technology know that implicitly. To be credible on identification technology issues, one must know this and acknowledge its significance.

Finally, the Secretary says that the DHS is not going to create a lot of databases using REAL ID. That may be his intention, but he’s in office for about ten more months. And whether DHS creates them or not, databases of information harvested using REAL ID would likely be available to DHS.

It is very hard to design information technology systems that do not collect and retain information. The current secretary’s personal opinion about databases just isn’t good evidence of whether or not there will be databases of information about the comings and goings of law-abiding Americans. Chances are very good if REAL ID is implemented that there will be.

Will Hungary Finally Join the Flat Tax Club?

Unlike most of its neighbors, Hungary is still saddled with a discriminatory tax regime, leading to high tax rates on productive behavior and a big underground economy. Fortunately, the collapse of the current Hungarian government may pave the way for a flat tax:

Small Hungarian opposition party the Hungarian Democratic Forum Thursday said it would attempt to force the introduction of a flat tax after a coalition split this week raised the prospect of a minority government. “The withdrawal of the (junior coalition) Alliance of Free Democrats has opened up the possibility of introducing a flat tax from 2009, since this gives the parliamentary majority for the decision,” the party said in a statement. Free Democrat leader Ibolya David called for opposition parties to attend talks on April 15 to work out details of a bill to submit to parliament by May. The party wants to emulate regional peers such as Slovakia and Romania by introducing a flat 18-per-cent personal income tax to reduce a tax burden it called “unfairly high.” The Free Democrats and main opposition party Fidesz - along with its allies the Christian Democrats - have said in the past that they would favour a flat tax. …The Socialist Party has only 190 seats in the 386-seat parliament, meaning that the opposition parties could force through a flat tax bill by banding together. Hungary is ranked as having the second-highest tax burden for single people, behind Belgium, amongst the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Many feel the high burden - made worse in 2006 when the government hiked taxes as part of its economic reforms - hits Hungary’s regional competitiveness. …The tax burden also credited with maintaining the huge black economy. Estimates of the size of the black economy vary from the official figure of 18 per cent of gross domestic product to as high as 50 per cent among some analysts.

Illinois Politicians Hatch Scheme to Kill State’s Flat Tax

There’s good news and bad news in the Land of Lincoln. Starting with the bad news, a handful of state politicians want to impose a so-called progressive tax scheme that will double the tax burden for productive citizens. The good news is that this requires an amendment to the Illinois Constitution, which requires both three-fifths support from the legislature and - more important - three-fifths support from state voters:

A group of House Democratic lawmakers announced Thursday they want to ask voters to amend the state constitution to double the income tax burden on Illinoisans who earn more than $250,000 a year. …”I believe a flat rate income tax is a regressive tax, it’s an unfair tax and by moving to a progressive tax - one that taxes those who earn more at a higher rate - we can accomplish some of these goals that have eluded the state for a number of years,” Smith said at a press conference at the capitol. Smith said about 107,000 of the more than 5 million taxpayers in Illinois would be affected by the proposed increase. In order for the Illinois Constitution to be amended, both chambers of the General Assembly must approve the proposal by a three-fifths majority. Afterward, 60 percent of voters must vote in favor of the amendment on a referendum that will appear on the ballot in the next election.

Superlative REAL ID Editorial

The Orange County Register has an editorial on the REAL ID Act this morning that captures the issues magnificently. Among other gems:

The big trouble is that there’s no evidence that this Draconian act, even if fully implemented, would be more than a minor inconvenience for a determined terrorist. But having all that information – including copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards – available in one database would make an irresistible target for identity thieves. And it would be a major inconvenience for millions of innocent Americans and a major expense for state governments – meaning taxpayers.

The Register’s conclusion? Congress should “bite the bullet and repeal this useless, intrusive, money-wasting law.”

The War in NATO

My recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor argues that the US objective in Afghanistan – preventing the creation of terrorist havens – does not require that Afghanistan become a peaceful, centralized state. I say that’s good news because it’s beyond us to build one. Absent this goal, the push for a surge of US or NATO forces in Afghanistan makes less sense.

I want to add couple points here that I couldn’t fit into the op-ed.

American leaders have lately been telling Europeans to make a bigger commitment to Afghanistan, even though the war is becoming unpopular in much of Europe. For instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at a conference in Munich in February where he explained the terrorist threat to the Europeans to get them to send more troops to Afghanistan. He did not say how counter-insurgency in Afghanistan serves counter-terrorism in Pakistan, which is where the terrorists in the region who should concern Europeans mostly live. At least in the short term, 55,000 thousand western soldiers across the border seem more likely to inflame Pakistani extremism than to suppress it.

This hectoring demonstrates the trouble with NATO. Back when NATO had a clear purpose, to defend Western Europe from the Soviets, it made sense to ask the Europeans to do more. The Europeans had an incentive to avoid military spending; to free ride. That was OK with Americans at the start of the Cold War, when we were eager to spark European economic growth as a bulwark against Communism. Once Western Europe got rich, we told them to ante up, in part via publications like the Allied Contribution of the Common Defense.

Most American policy-makers believe that we remain in that Cold War relationship; that our allies are free-riding to a shared goal. But, as Stanley Kober has observed, threat perceptions have diverged, and many Europeans, rather than appreciating our wars, dispute their efficacy. Europeans seem more inclined than Americans to wonder whether the war in Afghanistan is making them safer. By asserting a common cause without providing one, NATO clouds this reality. It deludes us into thinking that our efforts are a favor that the Europeans ought to return.

It has become popular to worry that Afghanistan will destroy NATO. That would be no great loss. Today, the principle effect of NATO and its eastward expansion is to antagonize Russia. The benefit that justifies this antipathy is unclear. How do the military responsibilities that the US has so casually accepted in recent years – to defend Estonia, for example, against Russia – serve US interests? This guarantee, if it’s believed, seems likely to encourage the war it defends against by provoking moral hazard; as the defense we provide our new allies frees them to offend Russia.

The thesis that the prospect of NATO membership spreads liberal values or institutions is plausible, but I’m not convinced. Nor is it clear that NATO matters much in signing up allies for wars. It’s possible we got a few more contributions in Afghanistan by virtue of the alliance, but I doubt it mattered much. The countries that went probably did so because they believed in the mission, not because they are in NATO.

Despite its strategic obsolescence, NATO has proven politically useful on both sides of the Atlantic. However hollow, NATO will survive. What we might lose in Afghanistan are misconceptions about its usefulness.

“Why Don’t You and Him Go Fight?”

The foreign-policy blog buzz of the day is probably the story, linked by Blake Hounshell at FP, and by Noah Shachtman at Wired, about al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri’s online Q and A recently. Apparently, according to Blake’s excerpts, it’s tough out there for a jihadi:

The general tenor of the questions is sharply critical, so let me boil down the questioners’ main beefs here:

Al Qaeda talks a big game, but never attacks Israel (but we have killed plenty of Jews, Zawahiri responds)
Al Qaeda isn’t doing anything to overthrow the Egyptian regime (it ain’t easy, Zawahiri pleads, but it is inevitable)
Al Qaeda slaughters innocent Muslims (only if they get in the way)
Al Qaeda is too harsh on Hamas (just the leaders who have sold out sharia law, not the “mujahedin”)
Al Qaeda is rumored to be dealing with Iran (a charge Zawahiri has responded to before with a non-denial denial)
Influential clerics and ideologues have denounced al Qaeda (Zawahiri takes great pains to paint two in particular, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the subject of “Egypt’s Contrite Commander” from FP’s current issue, as Zionist-Crusader stooges)

It’s good to know that these bastards are having at least as tough a time with public diplomacy as we are. Apparently sowing mayhem and blowing up wedding parties is a bad PR move. Meanwhile, Noah Shachtman highlights Mr. al Zawahiri’s thoughts on Iran, whom, if you were listening to John McCain or the Weekly Standard on this stuff, you may have thought was an old pal of aQ:

The dispute between America and Iran is a real dispute based on the struggle over areas of influence, and the possibility of America striking Iran is a real possibility. As for what might happen in the region, I can only say that major changes will occur in the region, and the situation will be in the interest of the Mujahideen if the war saps both of them. If, however, one of them emerges victorious, its influence will intensify and fierce battles will begin between it and the Mujahideen, except that the Jihadi awakening currently under way and the degeneration state of affairs of the invaders in Afghanistan and Iraq will make it impossible for Iran or America to become the sole decision-maker in the region. (emphasis mine)

This sounds an awful lot like the old “why don’t you and him go fight?” strategy to me. Doesn’t seem like you’d be too inclined to push Iran to the brink of war with the United States if you were really working hand-in-glove with Tehran like some have been insinuating.

RIP Herb Alexander

Herbert Alexander was the founder of the study of campaign finance in political science. Long before mandatory disclosure of contributions, Herb published a review of campaign fundraising and spending after each presidential election year. Those volumes remain an invaluable resource for scholars studying American political history. These books were thorough and thoughtful, genuine scholarship on a topic that generates more than a little bluster. I remember reading Herb’s work and thinking what fine work they were, especially considering the law did not mandate disclosure.

I first met Herb in the late 1980s. He had some sympathy in those days for efforts to regulate campaign finance. Later he was much more skeptical, and I like to think it was a skepticism born from experience. I remember a lunch I had with Herb a few years ago. We were discussing some aspect or the other of McCain-Feingold and suddenly Herb said, “You know, John, there’s such a thing as free speech. These people have rights!” Indeed.

Herb was a fine scholar who did his work with integrity and care. He was also a good friend to those who came to know him. I and many others will miss his scholarship and his company.