Skyscraper Signals

The boldest skyscraper project the world has seen in 75 years is currently being contructed in Dubai. The Burj Dubai will apparently top 2,600 feet, which would be 56% taller than the current tallest building (in Taipei) and more than twice as tall as the Empire State Building.

The American has a good cover story this month on the current tall building boom.

And Wikipedia has some construction shots of the Dubai project.

If privately financed, skyscraper projects are an interesting indicator of business sentiment in a city or a nation and investor bullishness on growth. If you want to know what business and investors in Chicago, Paris, London, Hong Kong, or Sao Paulo think about growth prospects in those cities, check out the skyscraper construction market. You can do that at this amazing site.  

Even Ayn Rand would be impressed with the current explosion in cloud-topping building projects.

USA Today Goes 0-5 on REAL ID

This morning the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Public Liaison was good enough to email me a copy of USA Today’s editorial supporting the REAL ID Act.  Curiously absent from the email was a copy of, or even a link to, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero’s opposing view.

It has been called unwise to argue with someone who buys ink by the ton, but USA Today’s praiseworthy adoption of “Web 2.0” interactivity on its Web site shows how ink is shrinking in relevance.  So let’s go ahead and see how the paper did in its point-by-point assessment of REAL ID.  Below, USA Today’s points are in bold.  My commentary in roman text:

Taking the arguments of Real ID opponents one at a time:

•It won’t make the nation safer. True, there’s no guarantee that the law would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers and that determined terrorists won’t find a way around the new requirements. Averting terror attacks, however, requires layers of security. Credible IDs are an important layer.

To be more clear, the law would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers.  All of the 9/11 attackers could have gotten driver’s licenses legally had the REAL ID Act been the law on September 11, 2001.  Identification really doesn’t provide any security against committed threats.

“Layered security” is a legitimate way of thinking about things.  One shouldn’t rely on a single security system, because that creates a single point of failure.  However, security layering doesn’t end the inquiry.  Each layer must provide security that is cost-justified.  If creating a national ID doesn’t create a substantial protection - and it doesn’t - the national ID layer does more harm than good.  Speaking of cost …

•It costs too much. Motorists will have to spend an estimated $20 more, a relatively small sum for a standardized, tamper-proof license. For states, the costs are estimated at up to $14.6 billion over five years, offset by as much as $100 million in federal grants this year alone, on top of $40 million in federal aid already provided. Governors can make a case for more help, but cost-sharing arguments shouldn’t stop the program from going forward.

DHS’s own cost estimate is that REAL ID costs over $17 billion dollars.  That’s about $50 per man, woman, and child in the United States.  State government officials are probably not enthused to know that DHS is making available less than 1 percent of the costs to implement REAL ID.

•It violates privacy. The creation of large databases always is reason to be wary. But the new regulations don’t create a national ID card or giant Big Brother-like federal database. States will still issue the licenses and retain information used to verify identity. Making an existing database more credible threatens privacy far less than many private sector data collections do.

To most people, a nationally standardized, government-issued card that is effectively mandatory to carry is a national ID card.

No database, huh?  Here’s section 202(d) of the Act:

To meet the requirements of this section, a State shall adopt the following practices in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards: …

(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State. 

(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum–

(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and

(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

As to private sector data collections, these, at least, people can prevent.  But if the private sector is wrong to do this, two wrongs don’t make a right.

It forces illegal immigrants to drive without licenses or insurance. Illegal immigrants won’t be able to get Real ID licenses, but states will be allowed to issue permits allowing them to drive and obtain insurance. In any event, the nation’s immigration problems require a comprehensive solution in Washington; they can’t be solved at state motor vehicle departments.

When the state of New Mexico de-linked driver licensing and immigration status, uninsured vehicle rates in the state dropped from 33 percent to 17 percent.  Unlicensed driving, hit-and-run accidents, and insurance rates probably followed a similar course.  It’s true that states will be allowed to issue non-federally-compliant IDs, including to illegal immigrants.  Knowing that such cards are “for illegals,” illegals are unlikely to get them.  Thanks to REAL ID, these drivers will kill innocent law-abiding Americans on the highways.

It’s too hasty. This is just absurd. DHS gave states until the end of 2009 to have programs in place to replace all licenses by 2013 — a sluggish 12 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Each day that driver’s licenses lack credibility is a day of needless vulnerability. As DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress last month, “If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.”

Few have made the argument that REAL ID is “too hasty.”  The Department of Homeland Security’s regulations didn’t make the law workable and neither can a delay.  The real problem is the law itself, and it needs to be repealed.

Careful observers noted the contrast between Secretary Chertoff’s urgency when speaking to Congress about REAL ID and his Department’s willingness to kick implementation down the road another year and a half, to December 2009.  Cards wouldn’t even be in everyone’s hands until 2013.  This puts the lie to the idea that a national ID is a security tool at all.

USA Today’s editorial page has been rather good on privacy issues in the past, and willing to call out government hypocrisy.  They took a winger on this one and got it wrong.

A Look Over the Horizon? Look All Around!

You don’t have to look far over the horizon to know what life in America would be like if we had a national ID.  On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that a mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is considering requiring ID from youths before they can enter.  This is private ordering, of course, but private ordering doesn’t happen in a bubble.  Private actors will be much more likely to check IDs if there is a nationally uniform ID system.

With IDs and credentials of different designs and from different issuers in our hands today, ID checking is relatively rare, and rarely automated.  Nonetheless, companies like Intelli-Check are pushing electronic ID-checking systems for nanny-state purposes. They would have a much easier time if all of us carried the same card and it was effectively mandatory.  Keep in mind that more ID checking equals more personal data collection.

In tiny Earlville, Illinois, a woman named Joy Robinson-Van Gilder has started a one-woman crusade against her local public school which decided to use fingerprint biometrics to administer the purchase of hot lunches in the cafeteria.  Despite her wishes, they fingerprint-scanned her 7-year-old, for a time refusing to allow him hot lunches if he wouldn’t use their system. 

The starting point for this kind of program is using it to manage lunch payments, but the ending point is a detailed record of each child’s eating habits and the school usurping the role of parents.  It’s no wonder government schools are at the center of so much social conflict.

There is nothing inherently wrong with identification or with biometrics but, unless they are adopted through voluntary choice, they will be designed to serve institutions and not people.

Great Moments in Government-Run Health Care

Britain’s National Health Service is an inefficient monstrosity with long waiting lines, yet the bureaucrats still manage to squander taxpayer funds on things such as “soul retrieval healing” and fingertip-tapping. Just for good measure, there is even some cheerleading for flower-therapists and crystal-healers. This type of nonsense exists in America, of course, but at least people are wasting their own money. The UK-based Times has the story:

Tom and Donna (not their real names) are professional shamen. They teach classes in shamanism at a “foundation”, where you can learn “soul retrieval healing”, help the dead “continue their journey into the Hereafter”, and investigate “the Fairy Kingdom”. These soul retrievers and Fairy Kingdom investigators also work for the NHS — where, according to Tom’s foundation profile, they “use complementary therapies to help those with mental health difficulties”. Shaman therapies are not the only unorthodox treatments for which the NHS will gladly pay.

Taxpayers are also subsidising Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) “therapy”, in which, according to one NHS trust, “subtle energies” are reordered via “tapping with the fingertips to stimulate certain meridian energy points while the client is ‘tuned in’ to the problem”. …If EFT doesn’t do the job, an NHS foot massage might help. Reflexologists believe that each part of the foot maps to a different organ, and that massaging a particular point can treat that organ. Medical doctors think it’s absurd. …Most depressing of all for the rational taxpayer is the NHS Directory for Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which aims to promote “dowsers”, “flower therapists” and “crystal healers”. We’ve just learnt that some hospitals are removing every third light bulb to save money, and that nurses are being paid half the minimum wage — or being asked to work for nothing — at others. That’s how bad the financial crisis has become. Meanwhile, the National Health Service is employing shaman fairy enthusiasts as psychological counsellors, enthusiastically providing treatments invented by “an ordained minister and a personal performance coach” who thinks tapping your body can cure diabetes, promoting dowsers and crystal healers and spending vast amounts on therapies that can’t be scientifically supported.

Europe is Falling Further behind the United States

Although some politicians argue that America should emulate Europe, that choice would mean lower living standards and less prosperity. A new study from Eurochambres reveals that Europe is decades behind the US in important measures of competitiveness. The study also calculates how long it would take Europe to catch up to America, but that assumes the US becomes stagnant. In reality, as the EU Observer reports, America is growing faster than Europe and the gap between the two is widening rather than shrinking:

The EU is 22 years behind the US on economic growth according to a new study, with several other economic indicators showing further gaps despite Europe’s ambitious reform agenda to be praised by leaders at this week’s summit.

A report by Eurochambers, the Brussels-based business lobby, published on Monday (5 March) argues that the US reached the current EU rate of GDP per capita in 1985 and its levels in employment and research investment almost 30 years ago.

…according to the Eurochambers study, the EU time lag behind the US has expanded further since 2003 when the group published its first report comparing the economic indicators on both sides of the Atlantic. …Authors of the study point out that if calculations included the latest newcomers of Bulgaria and Romania, the gap between the EU and US would be even larger… in a bid to start catching up with the US on key Lisbon indicators, Europe would have to perform better than the States, according to the Eurochambers study, while the latest results show the opposite: in 2006, the US registered an average GDP growth of 3.3 percent and the EU about 2.9 percent, the highest since 2000.

Webb on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Trolling through a news story about Sen. Jim Webb’s effort to preemptively deny the administration funds for attacking Iran unprovoked, this statement seems like one of the smartest things a congresscritter has said about foreign policy in a long time:

It is important that we clarify, formally, the perimeter of our immediate military interests in the Middle East.

Who would object to that?

Russia Examining Corporate Tax Rate Reduction

Lower tax rates are not a solution to all Russia’s problems, but tax policy is moving in the right direction. Tax-news.com reports that the government wants to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent. Even more impressive, policy makers seemingly understand that lower corporate tax rates will have a larger supply-side effect than a reduction in the value-added tax, demonstrating a better grasp of economics than nine-tenths of the US Congress. The story also notes that Russia has taken other positive steps, though it does not mention the 13 percent flat tax implemented in 2001: 

Russia may cut its corporate profit tax rate to 20% from 24% as part of a three-year tax policy plan, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov stated last week. The government had previously been considering a further reduction in value added tax, currently 18%, to as low as 13%, but Shatalov said that a cut in corporate profit tax would be more likely to stimulate economic growth and boost levels of investment. …Putin has stated many times that while the government remains committed both to simplifying tax legislation and reducing the tax burden, tax reform must be balanced against needs of business, which requires certainty in the tax code. Since 2002, the Putin administration has reduced or abolished a number of taxes, including turnover tax, payroll taxes, sales tax, and value added tax. According to Putin, in 2005 Russia’s tax burden eased to 27.4% of GDP, from 28.7% in 2004.