Harpers Denounce Border Plan, ID Systems

A prominent Harper spoke out this week against the plan to require passports or passport-‘lite’ ID cards for crossing the U.S.-Canada border. That’s Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. 

He is no relation to the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, who spoke out about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative’s PASS card system two weeks ago

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) sounds like a wonderful thing. It’s hard to be against travel. But WHTI is actually about shrinking commerce and travel among the friendly countries in our region.

In the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress pushed the Department of Homeland Security to create an “automated biometric entry and exit data system” for people crossing the borders. A prominent proposal is the PASS card, which stands for People Access Security Service. It is envisioned as a card containing an RFID chip that is to be given to passport holders. The chip would alert the DHS when a person arrives at a border crossing. 

“Pre-positioning” data by sending an electronic signal from 30 or more feet sounds like it would make border crossings go faster. But moving identification data is not what takes time at border crossings — it’s checking to see if the person and the identity information match up. 

An RFID-chipped PASS card would mean that lots more information about American citizens’ movements would be collected. It’s a system not just verifying that travelers are citizens or legal aliens — it’s a system for collecting information about our comings and goings, yet another dimension of our lives revealed to the government to do with as it will.

Congress seems held in thrall by national ID systems. Last week, the House passed a bill to require showing identification cards for voting. And, of course, we already have the REAL ID Act, which by May 2008 will have states issuing drivers’ licenses and ID cards to national standards (sharing driver information nationwide, too) — if states comply. Harper of the Cato Institute testified to a New Mexico legislative committee about that issue last week. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that compliance with the REAL ID Act will cost $11 billion dollars nationwide.

Identification seems to offer an easy technological quick-fix for ailments like illegal immigration and terrorism. But what most of these schemes would do is further regiment and control law-abiding people while merely inconveninencing criminals, terrorists, and any other threat with a modicum of sophistication and motivation.

My book Identity Crisis has more on this and all other facets of identification.

Aside from That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Did You Enjoy the Show?

A website called TheBudgetGraph.com offers a visual representation of federal spending based on President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2007. (Click here, then click on “View the Graph.”) It is truly a monstrosity.

But look more closely and you’ll notice that it only counts budget items to which Congress must fix a dollar amount every year. It completely ignores those parts of the federal budget where the dollar amount is set automatically by formula. (Those two categories are usually called “discretionary” versus “mandatory” expenditures, but that bifurcation is misleading. Nearly all expenditures are discretionary, with the possible exception of interest payments on the national debt.)

That latter category — which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest payments on the debt, etc. — comprises 63 percent of the federal budget. That makes “The Budget Graph” more like “a visual guide to where one-third of your federal tax dollars go.”

Were the graph to count the entire budget, heck, I’d probably buy the poster.

(HT: Frederic Sautet.)

Peter Mandelson Still Wants to Date Us, He Was Just Washing His Hair

The Cairns Group is a group of 18 major agricultural exporting nations. This week they held their 20th anniversary meeting in Cairns, Australia (the site of their first meeting, hence the name of the group). Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, they were able to make little headway in moving the struggling Doha round of trade talks forward. (The special importance to agriculture in the Doha talks was presumed to give the Cairns Group a strong voice.)

There are a few reasons for this:

First, the Cairns Group has lost some of its gravitas now that the G-20 (a developing country block of WTO members that was formed and at least partly responsible for the disastrous end to the 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun) has entered the fray. The G-20 (which has some overlap in membership with the Cairns Group) is less inclined toward liberalization in general, unless it is liberalization in other countries.

Second, and more importantly, the EU’s trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, refused to attend the Cairns meetings because of a “prior commitment.” I’ve used that excuse to get out of an unappetizing social engagement, too, Mr. Mandelson, and I’m almost always telling a white lie. In this case, however, the refusal to attend is not so “white.”

Mr. Mandelson’s job, and inclination if we are to believe his press statements, is to do all he can to revive these talks. Mandelson is visiting the United States for talks with U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab, agriculture secretary Mike Johanns, and congressional leaders next week so he’s not completely disengaged. But sending Smithers EU Ambassador to the WTO, Carlos Trojan, to Cairns in his place was not appropriate.

The upshot of having a conspicuously empty seat in Cairns: yet more sniping. The EU (through Ambassador Trojan and comments from his Brussels master) and the United States both dismissed the Australian compromise of lowering EU tariffs by a further 5 percent and U.S. farm support by an extra $5 billion. Then, both members said that the other needs to move first. 

The best, possibly only, chance for a Doha result is between November (i.e., post mid-term elections in the United States) and March, when the U.S. administration’s fast-track authority deadline really starts to pinch. A small window indeed.

All Wet

For wetlands and Commerce Clause groupies, I have a short piece published in the Environmental Law Institute’s National Wetlands Newsletter analyzing the impact of last term’s wetlands-meets-federalism decision, Rapanos v. United States, here. While every critic of the case singles out Justice Kennedy for criticism, I aim equal ire at the failings of Chief Justice Roberts’ short, and equally problematic, concurrence.

Educational Excellence Through Central Planning?

In a Washington Post op-ed, former education secretaries Rod Paige and Bill Bennett call for a federal education testing regime. States that don’t like the idea would be free to keep their own standards, but only under the “rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats” that already takes place under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). What they’re saying to states is this: why don’t we replace those NCLB handcuffs – that you might slip out of anyway – with a nice new straightjacket.”

In trying to sell this idea, they acknowledge that the Constitution makes no mention of education – and hence, by the 10th Amendment, leaves power over it in the hands of the states and the people – but then dismiss adherence to that Amendment as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” It is federal officials like these, keep in mind, who would oversee the standards and tests in question. I can see it now. “Guess what I learned in school today, daddy: ‘The Bill of Rights is for wussies!’”

Even more puzzling, the secretaries acknowledge the virtues of competitive education markets in their double plus ungood argument for central planning. As a champion of the Western literary canon, surely Mr. Bennett has turned the pages of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which begins by explaining that markets depend on specialization and the division of labor. Imposing a single set of federal standards and tests would crush the diversity that markets require.

Most short-sightedly, the secretaries’ simply assume that a new federal standards and testing regime would necessarily meet with their approval. They make that gross assumption at a time when their own party’s control of congress is in doubt, and after acknowledging that “most states have deployed mediocre standards.”

In a nutshell, it’s a bad argument for a bad idea.

Remind me again, which of the two major parties stands for limited government?

Medicare Politics Will Sink Quality Efforts

As David Hyman explains in Medicare Meets Mephistopheles (book forum today), Medicare’s already-high tax burden is set to explode when the baby boomers begin to retire in 2011. Yet for all that money, the quality of care that Medicare delivers is downright mediocre.

Some members of Congress, led by Senate Finance Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), are using the threat of a cut in Medicare payments to force physicians to accept tying those payments to government-defined quality measures.

Physicians, led by the American Medical Association, are essentially responding, Ditch the planned pay cut – then we’ll talk.”

Who’s right? Whose approach will get seniors and taxpayers the most value for their Medicare dollars? No one really knows, and thus all the political wrangling.

But one thing can be known: the approach that Congress chooses will be determined by raw political power – not by what provides the greatest value. For example, if the physicians get their way, every bit of quality improvement will cost taxpayers more money, because the AMA won’t even support pay cuts for lousy doctors.

As I explain in a recent paper, that is exactly why we don’t want Congress itself in the business of measuring and rewarding health care quality. That task is better left to a competitive market process. Congress should confine “pay-for-performance” to private Medicare plans, and encourage greater enrollment in private plans by giving seniors risk-adjusted vouchers rather than a defined benefit.