Americans Overwhelmingly Reject Redistribution

In some heartening news, new poll results from Gallup show that Americans decisively reject redistributionist policies by an 84 percent-13 percent margin. Even Democrats prefer that government focuses on growth rather than redistribution by a margin of 77 percent-19 percent. A blogger for the New Republic claims the question was poorly worded, but that seems like wishful thinking. People were basically asked whether government should focus on making the pie bigger or focus on re-slicing the pie, and the results are very encouraging:

…given a choice about how government should address the numerous economic difficulties facing today’s consumer, Americans overwhelmingly – by 84% to 13% – prefer that the government focus on improving overall economic conditions and the jobs situation in the United States as opposed to taking steps to distribute wealth more evenly among Americans. … Americans’ lack of support for redistributing wealth to fix the economy spans political parties: Republicans (by 90% to 9%) prefer that the government focus on improving the economy, as do independents (by 85% to 13%) and Democrats (by 77% to 19%). This sentiment also extends across income groups: upper-income Americans prefer that the government focus on improving the economy and jobs by 88% to 10%, concurring with middle-income (83% to 16%) and lower-income (78% to 17%) Americans. … In sum, free-market advocates can take considerable solace in Americans’ overwhelming belief that the government should not focus on redistributing income and wealth, but on improving the overall economy. And, to a lesser degree, Americans also believe government continues to do too much – not too little – to solve the nation’s problems.

Justice Department Bureaucrats May Set Risky Precedent with Extra-Territorial Tax Persecution

Bush Administration appointees involved with issues such as the Iraq war and coercive interrogation of suspected terrorists probably don’t spend much time thinking about international tax policy, but they may rue the day that the Justice Department decided to persecute Swiss banks and Swiss bankers for obeying Swiss law and protecting the financial privacy of customers. What’s the connection? By going after Swiss banks and Swiss bankers in hopes of finding a few Americans who might be hiding money from the IRS, the Justice Department is embracing the notion that governments should not be constrained by national boundaries and national laws. Richard Rahn already has an excellent piece explaining why this is an absurd policy, but let’s consider some of the broader implications.

What if John Yoo or Donald Rumsfeld travel to Europe in the near future for business or personal reasons and some European government decides to throw them in jail for violating “international law”? This may sound fanciful, but German authorities already have moved in this direction by asserting universal jurisdiction, and it doesn’t take much imagination to foresee politically ambitious officials from other nations grabbing the baton. The Wall Street Journal report does not cover these broader implications, but it is a good summary of the Justice Department’s fishing expedition:

The Justice Department, in an unprecedented move against a foreign bank, is seeking to force UBS AG to turn over the names of wealthy U.S. clients who allegedly used the giant Swiss bank to avoid taxes. …U.S. authorities have been holding discussions for several weeks with UBS and Swiss banking authorities to identify the U.S. account holders. People familiar with the talks say UBS officials floated the possibility that the U.S. could obtain the names through a request to Swiss regulators. Monday’s federal court filing instead puts the bank in direct conflict with the U.S. government. …The filing is the first against a non-U.S. bank by the Justice Department using what it calls a “John Doe summons,” a maneuver typically used to investigate tax fraud by people whose identities are unknown. The move could spark a major legal battle because the Justice Department is essentially gambling that courts will bless the move when it’s directed at a company with extensive U.S. operations but that isn’t based in the U.S.

Our Collectivist Candidates, Past and Present

I’ve just been reading Bill Kauffman’s fine book Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (see him talk about it here), and I ran across this quotation from Bill Clinton in 1997:

It’s hard when you’re not threatened by a foreign enemy to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor.

Indeed it is. Outside of wartime it is difficult, even impossible, to rally millions of free citizens around a common aim. When you’re not threatened by war or occupation, people have their own endeavors, their own purposes, their own “pursuits of industry and improvement,” as Jefferson put it, to worry about. That’s why collectivists and statists are always trying to gin up war fever in metaphorical wars like the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the Energy Crisis.

And as I wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, this martial spirit remains a temptation to our current candidates. Barack Obama told Wesleyan graduates that “our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.” John McCain calls on us to serve “a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests,” preferably by doing calisthenics in uniform in front of city hall. Politicians like that, as Michelle Obama, “will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual.”

Obama’s Kansas Values

The Washington Post has a front-page story on how Barack Obama is playing in the heartland of America, Findlay, Ohio. Not so good, judging by the lengthy interviews with good solid middle-Americans who believe things like this:

“I think Obama would be a disaster, and there’s a lot of reasons,” said Pollard, explaining the rumors he had heard about the candidate from friends he goes camping with. “I understand he’s from Africa, and that the first thing he’s going to do if he gets into office is bring his family over here, illegally. He’s got that racist [pastor] who practically raised him, and then there’s the Muslim thing. He’s just not presidential material, if you ask me.”

There’s plenty more in the story. Which is why Obama is now running his famous television ad, titled “Country I Love.” And judging by the Post story, the ad is working very well with those who see it, at least those who are sympathetic to Obama in the first place. Reporter Eli Saslow writes:

The new advertisement running in Findlay, in which Obama is pictured with his white mother and white grandparents as he talks about developing a “deep and abiding faith in the country I love” while growing up in the Kansas heartland…

But of course Obama didn’t grow up in Kansas. He was born in Hawaii and grew up there and in Indonesia. And the ad doesn’t claim that he did. In the ad Obama says:

I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents….They taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up.

Talk about a guy who isn’t well known yet, on whom everybody can project both good and bad images. People all over America are hearing on the internet or at the beauty salon that he’s a Muslim born in Africa, and a Washington Post reporter somehow thinks he grew up in Kansas.

On Onions, Oil, and ‘Speculators’

Politicians who blame “speculators” in futures markets for the run up in oil prices — such as Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) writing in this morning’s USAToday — should consider a lesson from the lowly onion.

Onions are one of the few commodities in the United States for which there are no futures markets, according to an item published Friday in Fortune magazine. (Futures markets allow the sale of commodities for set prices at future dates.) It seems that in the late 1950s domestic onion producers blamed those same speculators in futures markets for driving onion prices DOWN. They successfully lobbied Congress to ban all futures trading in onions, a ban that is still in place a half century later.

So has the absence of futures-market speculation kept onion prices low and stable? Quite the contrary. According to Fortune:

And yet even with no traders to blame, the volatility in onion prices makes the swings in oil and corn look tame, reinforcing academics’ belief that futures trading diminishes extreme price swings. Since 2006, oil prices have risen 100%, and corn is up 300%. But onion prices soared 400% between October 2006 and April 2007, when weather reduced crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only to crash 96% by March 2008 on overproduction and then rebound 300% by this past April.

Sen. Dorgan and his allies will need to find someone else to blame for volitale and rising oil prices.

“Your Epidermis is Showing!”

When I was a young nerd, alerting kids about the exposure of their epidermis was a favorite school-bus taunt, a great one to use on kids whose vocabulary wasn’t above grade-level like mine. “Epidermis” is, of course, a fancy word for skin. A good deal of everyone’s epidermis is showing most of the time, and it doesn’t matter. But kids can unnerve other kids just by telling them that they are exposed in ways they don’t understand, and that’s a fun thing to do.

Such is the flavor of news that data breach reports are up 69 percent so far in 2008. It sounds bad, and in a sense it is: By definition, a “breach” of data is an unintentional release. But the important question is whether a data breach results in any kind of actual harm.

There has been some research on the relationship between data breach and identity fraud, and the connection is fairly weak. New account fraud, which is the most damaging to consumers because of its effect on their financial reputations, takes some guile and work. The limiting factor on new account fraud is probably time and effort, not access to the kinds of information released in the garden variety data breach.

Much credit has been awarded to laws requiring disclosure of data breaches, especially California’s breach disclosure law, S.B. 1386. It’s worth noting that the news item linked first above cites a rise in reports of data breaches, not a rise in actual breaches. One would expect more reports as more entities come into compliance with disclosure laws. The rate of actual breaches and any trends are not part of this reporting.

A paper presented at WEIS 2008 Workshop on the Economics of Information Security last week has some relevant information. The paper is called “Do Data Breach Disclosure Laws Reduce Identity Theft?” and it finds “no statistically significant effect that [data breach disclosure] laws reduce identity theft, even after considering income, urbanization, strictness of law and interstate commerce. If the probability of becoming a victim conditional on a data breach is very small, then the law’s maximum effectiveness is inherently limited.”

Of course, data breach disclosure laws may cause firms to improve their data security practices, but doing so for compliance purposes and not for harm prevention will cause them to overspend on data security, with the costs passed on to their customers in the form of higher prices and to owners in the form of lower dividends and stock prices. Spending on security that doesn’t cost-effectively secure against real threats lowers consumer welfare, as economists would say.

The damage that might be done by any data breach is very contextual. Sometimes consumers should be alerted about it, and sometimes alerting them is a waste of everyone’s time. Sometimes other responses are more appropriate, and sometimes data breaches require no response at all. People have worked hard to tailor data breach disclosure laws, but this kind of regulation is inherently a clumsy instrument, and, again, disclosure may not even be the right response.

It’s looking more and more like data breach disclosure laws parallel the schoolyard taunt “your epidermis is showing.” Three years ago, I wrote about data security regulation suggesting that common law liability for holders of sensitive data might be a better way to ferret out the right responses to data breaches, and to make sure that data holders internalize risks. I’m still above grade-level, you see … .