Google Does a Good Thing

I have written here a couple of times about concerns with Google’s data retention practices in light of its susceptibility for use in government surveillance. 

Happily, a couple of Google lawyers have announced on the Google blog that the company will be making the data from their server logs “much more anonymous, so that it can no longer be identified with individual users, after 18-24 months.” That’s a big, important change, as Google’s privacy policy has never before pledged to destroy or anonymize data about all of our searches.

Now, there are some interesting details - details that are highlighted by the text I quoted above. “Anonymous” is correctly regarded as an absolute condition. Like pregnancy, anonymity is either there or it’s not. Modifying the word with a relative adjective like “more” is a curious use of language.

Google has a challenge, if they’re going to anonymize data and not destroy it, to make sure that a person’s identity and behavior cannot be reconstructed from it. As AOL’s fiasco with releasing “anonymized” search data showed, clipping off the obvious identifiers won’t do it. As data mining capabilities advance, anonymizing techniques will have to keep ahead of that.

There are interesting things that can be done to synthesize data, making it statistically relevant while factually incoherent. Hopefully, Google will sic some of its finest famously-smarty-pants engineers on the task of making their anonymous data really, really anonymous.

(Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)

An Extra $15 Billion for Farm Programs

Further to David’s post yesterday, some telling details about the Senate Budget Committee’s ideas for “fiscally responsible” farm policy. Starting on page 54 of this document, section 306 the “Deficit-Neutral Reserve Fund for the Farm Bill” (which is a cute name – what chances do you give of this staying a “reserve fund”?) states that:

The Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Budget may revise the allocations, aggregates, and other appropriate levels and limits in this resolution for a bill, joint resolution, amendment, motion, or conference report that- 

  1. reauthorizes the Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002;
  2. strengthens our agriculture and rural economies;  
  3. provides agriculture-related tax relief; 
  4. improves our environment by reducing our Nation’s dependence on foreign sources of energy through expanded production and use of alternative fuels; or 
  5. combines any of the purposes provided in paragraphs (1) through (4); 

by the amounts provided in that legislation for those purposes up to $15,000,000,000 over the total of fiscal years 2007 through 2012, provided that such legislation would not increase the deficit over the total of the period of fiscal years 2007 through 2012.

Farm lobby groups were relatively happy with the 2002 Farm Bill, and would be still were it not for the inconvenient fact that market prices of some commodities are so high, and projected to remain high, that government spending on price-linked subsidies will probably be relatively low over the next few years (falling from about $15 billion annually to about $8 billion). Apparently, high market prices are not sufficient to please some farm groups, hence the extra $15 billion of your money that the Senate has seen fit to allocate to “any of the purposes provided in paragraphs (1) through (4).”

On today’s agenda, a group of congressmen are introducing a bill regarding the reauthorization of the farm bill. From the press release (via Ken Cook):

The bill reforms the Farm Bill to make a major new investment in the development of renewable energy on American farms, promote resource conservation, provide consumers with healthier food choices, and boost farm profitability. The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act of 2007 also includes provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on farms and fight global warming, and to expand programs to bring healthier foods to school cafeterias.

That’s quite a wish list.

Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies is on the case, though. Stay tuned for our alternative ideas for the farm policy, released shortly.

Ohio Governor Seeks to Kill Voucher Program

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Ohio governor Ted Strickland called for the elimination of the statewide voucher program aimed at students in public schools deemed to be failing. He is also seeking to prevent the creation of any new charter schools and to outlaw for-profit firms from managing charter schools.

He went on to say that no new grocery stores should be opened in Ohio, that grocery stores should not be permitted to operate for profit, and that the state would be withdrawing from the federal foodstamps program.

Okay, I made that last paragraph up. But the only reason you knew that is because we are all familiar with the advantages of a competitive market for grocery stores, and with the fact that government can subsidize access to food without actually running its own supermarkets.

Researchers who study school governance structures in an international and historical perspective know that the same things that are true of the grocery business are also true of the education sector. Members of the public who frequent Cato’s website or read our publications know this as well.

Tragically, at least one very influential man from Ohio is wholly ignorant of these facts.

This is yet another argument for federalism and against national standards in education. If Ohioans choose to elect leaders who will unravel the progress they have made toward parental choice and competition between schools, their state will lose a competitive advantage it currently enjoys in attracting businesses and families. Other states that pursue greater freedom in education will attract more businesses and families. Eventually, states will have to stop operating education as a monopoly jobs program and start letting families decide – or gradually become economic and cultural backwaters.

But if we nationalize education – as so many Republicans and Democrats currently wish to do – a single backward administration or Congress could ruin education for the entire nation.

Folks who still support national standards after thinking about that should re-read the part of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that deals with medieval Chinese naval capacity and technology, and the reasons these fell behind achievements in the West.

Tax Harmonization Equals Higher Taxes

The politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels argue that taxes have to be equalized to improve the “efficiency” of the market. They make this rather absurd claim and then vehemently deny that tax harmonization has anything to do with making taxes higher. So why, then, does every tax harmonization decision in Europe inevitably result in higher taxes? The latest effort to increase the minimum diesel tax in the European Union, as reported by the EU Observer, is ample proof that tax harmonization is about giving politicians more money and power:

The European Commission has tabled a controversial bill to raise the minimum duty on diesel from 2012, aimed at stamping out so-called fuel tourism … Mr Kovacs’s paper suggests harmonizing the minimum level of excise duties at €359 per 1,000 litres of diesel in 2012 and subsequently at €380 in 2014, something which would force 21 EU states to increase their current rates. …fuel tourism cost Germany – believed to be the strongest advocate of the tabled proposal - €1.9 billion in 2004, as excise duties represent roughly between 30 to 60 percent of the pump price and are responsible for six to 18 percent of the running costs of a road haulage business.

No People in Washington, D.C.?

The majority opinion in last week’s federal Appeals Court ruling striking down D.C.’s stringent gun ban has garnered considerable attention from both the media and the public. Much less attention has been given to the court’s dissenting opinion (which begins on p. 59 of this .pdf), authored by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that her opinion “lost.” 

But part of the dissenting opinion should be very troubling to D.C. residents: according to Judge Henderson, they’re not “people” in the eyes of the Bill of Rights.

Judge Henderson states in her 5th footnote (p. 5 of her opinion, p. 63 of the .pdf):

[J]ust as the Tenth Amendment ties the rights reserved thereunder to “the people” of the individual “States,” thereby excluding “the people” of the District, … the Second Amendment similarly limits “the people” to those of the States….

Do you get it? According to Judge Henderson, Second and Tenth Amendments’ protections extend only to “people” living in the “States.” As D.C. is not a state, reasons Judge Henderson, District residents are not covered by those protections. 

I wonder: does this reasoning extend to the other protections granted by the Bill of Rights to “the people”? In the opinion of Judge Henderson, do District residents also not have the right ”to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”? Do District residents not have the right to due process? Do they not have constitutional protection from double-jeopardy and self-incrimination? Can District residents “be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime” without indictment from a grand jury and without representation? Can District residents “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”? Can District residents’ “private property be taken for public use without just compensation”? After all, the Bill of Rights explicitly guarantees those rights to “the people” or to a “person,” just as it guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”

To remember what rights you have (or, if you’re a District resident, what rights you may not have), be sure to order a copy of the U.S. Constitution (also available in Spanish and Arabic).

Tax Competition Forces Lower Tax Rates in Germany

The Wall Street Journal celebrates the putative announcement of a nine percentage point reduction in Germany’s corporate tax rate. There is a dark lining to this silver cloud since there are hidden tax increases included in the proposal. The initiative also leaves in place some loopholes that could have been used to finance even lower tax rates, but it is nonetheless encouraging to see that one of Europe’s biggest cheerleaders for tax harmonization is being forced to join the tax-cutting bandwagon: 

Europe’s vibrant tax competition has finally reached Germany, which usually prefers to sit back and tut-tut while its neighbors cut taxes and grow their economies. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet today is expected to slash the top corporate tax rate to 29.8% (the average federal-municipal rate) from 38.7%. That’s still a far cry from flat-tax Slovakia’s 19% or Ireland’s 12.5%. But it would move Germany from the third-highest corporate tax rate in the OECD, after Japan and the U.S., to a more comfortable middle position. …The Finance Ministry missed the opportunity to simplify the tax system in one go. Getting rid of tax exemptions for corporations – thereby broadening the tax base – would have been a useful move. It would have had the added benefit of giving Berlin more room to cut rates beyond the planned nine percentage points. …Over the long run, the corporate tax cuts will likely increase revenues by encouraging economic activity and tax compliance.

How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

For the past six years Democrats have railed against President Bush’s gimmicky, deceptive, wildly unbalanced budgets. Now that they control Congress, they have the power to write their own budgets. And what have they come up with? As the Washington Post explains,

Senate Democrats unveiled a spending blueprint yesterday that envisions a massive expansion of the nation’s health-insurance program for children, as well as billions of additional dollars for other domestic priorities such as public education, veterans’ health care and local police. 

Despite the additional spending, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the proposal would virtually erase the federal deficit within four years without raising taxes and produce a surplus of $132 billion by 2012.

It’s not true that politicians never learn anything. Conrad and his colleagues have learned a great deal from Bush and his budget spinners.