Aqua Teen Overreaction Force?

Boston officials investigating this week’s marketing campaign gone awry should be sure to include themselves in the scrutiny, asking if they overreacted to the incident.

A In case you missed the story, Cartoon Network, a division of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, recently launched a “guerrilla marketing campaign” to promote its new adult-audience cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. As part of the campaign, the network hired New York marketing firm Interference Inc. to place notepad-sized, electronically lit signs of the show’s “mooninite” characters in unusual locations around urban areas.

The campaign received little notice in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas. But in Boston, public officials treated the signs as a possible terrorist threat, closing bridges, subway stations, roadways, and even part of the Charles River while bomb squads removed the signs.

Once the nature of the signs became known, Boston mayor Thomas Menino issued a press release blasting the campaign:

It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme. I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.

Estimates for those expenses have already topped $1 million.

Boston officials’ initial concern is understandable and appropriate. Seeing an out-of-place object containing batteries, circuitry, and glowing lights is unsettling in these times and it should be investigated. But at what point should Boston officials have realized that the signs posed no threat, and called off the bomb squads?

This raises an issue that we often discuss here at Cato, and that has become especially important in the post-9/11 era: should we be more concerned about Type-1 errors (false positives) or Type-2 errors (false negatives)?

Detection systems, whether mechanical (burglar alarms, ultrasounds) or human (analysts, emergency services workers) are rarely error-free. Often, we have to decide whether we want a very sensitive detection system that likely will detect any real problem but also subjects us to Type-1 errors, or else a less sensitive system that likely won’t give us many false alarms but may also miss a real problem.

Boston officials’ bomb-squad response to the mooninite signs is a perfect example of a Type-1 error produced by a highly sensitive detection system. I suspect that government officials would defend the high sensitivity, saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

But Type-1 errors can end up making us feel very sorry. The current Iraq War can be considered a Type-1 error resulting from the Bush administration’s high sensitivity to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Or consider the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, during which local schools publicized that they were in “lockdown mode” and keeping schoolchildren indoors — that is, they went into “better safe than sorry” mode. The snipers later told police that the schools’ pronouncements enticed the snipers to try to kill a child, and they ultimately wounded a 13-year-old as he arrived at his Bowie, Md., middle school.

For an excellent discussion of why 9/11 should not lead us to be too accepting of Type-1 errors, read Ohio State University national security professor John Mueller’s article “A False Sense of Insecurity?

Facts, Lies, Statistics and NIEs

The big news on the defense and foreign policy front is the release earlier today of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, an unclassified summary of which is now available online (.pdf). Congressional staff are poring over a much longer (90-page), classified version. President Bush was presented with a copy of the full report yesterday.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley discussed the NIE with reporters, characterizing the report as “a good statement about the risks if we do not succeed in Iraq, for Iraqis, for the region, and for Americans here at home.” (Count this as Exhibit A for the defense.) 

Bloggers immediately pounced on the report to make the counterpoint, namely that the Bush administration’s escalation plan — by the NIE’s own admission — couldn’t possibly work (Exhibit B for the prosecution).

The near-instantaneous interpretation of a key intelligence assessment is hardly a new phenomenon. As I explain in my book John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, the selective leaking and politically motivated interpretation of intelligence muddied the water on the nature of the Soviet threat in the late 1950s. (A more digestible paper I wrote for the Princeton Project on National Security that discusses these 1950s-era debates, as well as a discussion of the “Team B” controversy of the 1970s, can be found here.)

The response to the latest Iraq NIE fits a similar pattern. Each side is fixing on a few relevant passages to prove its case or, failing that, to engender doubt about the other side’s arguments.

For example, advocates for an expeditious withdrawal (of which I am one) can point to the NIE’s statement that “Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate,” and conclude that the likelihood of success is extremely small.

On the other side, opponents of withdrawal can point to the NIEs discussion of what might ensue if and when U.S. forces withdraw. These are the passages that Hadley highlighted in his press briefing.

No NIE could ever hope to resolve such disputes. However, from my perspective, the key to interpreting NIEs lies in the probabilities assigned to various predictions. The likelihood that a particular event will play out is never expressed in numerical terms. But this NIE includes a useful tutorial for NIE naifs that tries to explain how different words (“likely,” “unlikely,” “probably,” “may be,” etc.) should be interpreted along a probability continuum, from remote to almost certain.

So, returning to the passage pertaining to a U.S. withdrawal, pay close attention to the qualifiers (in my italics, with my impertinent questions in brackets):

If coalition forces were withdrawn [ever? in less than 18 months?], if such a rapid [how rapid?] withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the Iraqi security forces would be unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution. Neighboring countries, invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally, might intervene openly in the conflict. Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable. AQI, or al Qaeda in Iraq would attempt to use parts of the country, particularly al Anbar Province, to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq. [attempt, perhaps; but how likely is it that they would succeed in establishing a comfortable safe haven. My guess? Not likely. See here and here.] And spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

No one disputes that conditions in Iraq are dire. What remains of a debate in this country is between those who believe that we must pay any price, and bear any burden, to succeed in Iraq, because failure would spell the “beginning of the end” of Western civilization (hat tip to Justin Logan). On the other side are those who believe that the price that we have paid in Iraq is already too great, and that there is a no reasonable likelihood that the Bush administration’s stated goals in the country can be achieved at anything approaching a reasonable cost. This is a debate between the believers and the non-believers, if you will.

It would be unreasonable to expect, therefore, that this NIE will resolve the debate one way or the other. Ultimately, policymakers must make a judgment, on the basis of imperfect information, and be prepared to explain and defend that position to the people that elected them to office.

Utah House Passes Nation’s First Universal School Voucher Bill

A couple of hours ago, the Utah House of Representatives passed the nation’s first universal school voucher bill (HB 148) in a nail-biting 38-37 vote. From what I hear coming out of Utah, it’s going to pass the Senate next week as well, and be signed by the governor. 

If it is signed into law, it will be an unprecedented step forward for educational freedom in this country. The media, as well as school choice advocates and critics, will be watching Utah intently to see what happens, and there are some caveats that I think are very important for everyone to keep in mind. 

First, dramatic results should not be expected overnight. In other nations that have adopted similar school choice programs (e.g., Chile, Sweden), it has taken five or 10 years for large numbers of new schools to be created, and for the good ones to be weeded out from the bad. Competition and consumer choice work wonderfully well in education, but their effects are not instantaneous. Part of the reason for that lag is that potential school founders have to be convinced that a newly passed school choice law is on firm legal and political ground, and not likely to be overturned by the courts or repealed by a subsequent legislature. And you can bet this law will be challenged.

Second, the maximum value of Utah’s school vouchers would be $3,000, only about half of what Utah spends per pupil in its public schools. So Bill 148 would still leave private schools at a considerable financial disadvantage compared to their state-run counterparts, and that would inhibit competition between the public and private sectors and retard innovation. 

Those caveats aside, this is a momentous day not just for Utah families, but for our entire nation. What Utah’s legislature has figured out is that school choice is a much better way of fulfilling the promise of public education than is the one-size-fits-all factory school system we inherited from the 19th century.

A Man’s House Is His Castle?

A guy sits down to watch the World Series, drink beer, and clean his World War II-era firearms. A quiet, relaxing evening in his own home. He could not fathom that the “Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment Team” would soon be on the scene to “neutralize the threat” he is posing to the community. The ”Team” forces him out of his apartment with flash bang grenades, chemical gas canisters, and rubber bullets.

The details are set forth in this recent judicial ruling.

Yet another example of the disturbing militaristic mind-set that pervades too many of our police agencies. Unnecessary provocation and violence. Unfortunately, the judiciary essentially approves, even lauds, the police work, but nevertheless issues a tiny $1 rebuke because the agents failed to obtain an arrest warrant during this “standoff.”  

Now the city has a budget of $3 billion, but it decides to appeal instead of paying out a measly four quarters. From the point of view of the government attorneys, it was apparently crucial to spend who-knows-how-many-taxpayer-dollars to defend police power and to keep the warrant requirement precedent off the books.

The Constitution is supposed to be “the supreme law of the land,” but consider how much regard the police showed to the right to keep and bear arms and the right to be secure in our homes against unreasonable searches and seizures. Anyone who thinks this is an “isolated incident” should study this, this, and this.

EU vs. Gas-guzzlers

The commissioners of the European Union endlessly preach about the need for carbon taxes and costly regulations that will reduce the quality of life for regular people. But those same commissioners get driven around in low-mileage vehicles. Fortunately, they are getting attacked for this hypocritical attitude.

Sadly, the embarrassment will have little impact. American politicians — including President Bush — want to force Americans into smaller (and more dangerous) cars, yet periodic efforts to require them to live by the same rules have proved fruitless.

The EU Observer reports on the controversy in Brussels: 

EU commissioners are finding themselves under scrutiny to see if they are putting into practice the green values that Brussels is increasingly preaching, with most of the 120-strong fleet of officials cars comprising gas-guzzling, C02-emitting giants.

…[T]he vast majority of the 27 commissioners use the standard-issue vehicles such as Audis or Mercedes — high on security features but rather lower on environment friendliness — to be ferried here and there across Brussels; sometimes even the few hundred metres between commission buildings.

…A commission spokesperson said, “It’s an individual decision for commissioners what their service car should be but as a general rule, the commissioners choose cars that are functional and safe for what they are doing.”

School Reform in Utah

Although it is opposed by the usual special interest groups, Utah lawmakers are moving forward with a school choice plan. Since Utah recently enacted a flat tax, there apparently is a real commitment to reform. The Wall Street Journal reports

The voucher bill passed out of committee earlier this week and is backed by Governor Jon Huntsman. It would offer students who attend private K-12 schools from $500 to $3,000 in tuition reimbursement based on family income.

While Utah is known for its Mormon population, the biggest winners under the plan would be the state’s growing Hispanic population, who haven’t done well in general in Utah public schools.

As usual, local school boards and the state teachers union (the Utah Education Association) are fighting the idea, claiming that it will “drain” money from public schools. This hardly seems likely because the $9 million cost of the program is about 0.5% of total school spending. And the voucher maximum of $3,000 is less than half the state per child public-school spending average of $6,325. The voucher bill also allows Utah public schools to keep the difference between the voucher amount paid out to students who leave and the $6,325 per pupil average.

Vouchers are working in a handful of cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also promoted a statewide plan, until a liberal state court invented constitutional objections.

The evidence on student performance has mostly been favorable in these schools, and research by Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby has found that the presence of vouchers has caused the public schools to improve their performance as well. 

The Libertarian Vote: New Returns Trickle In

Don’t miss the latest from David Kirby and me on the libertarian vote. In Cato Policy Report (pdf; less attractive HTML version here) we report the results of our Zogby International poll of 2006 voters.

In the Zogby survey, 15 percent of voters gave libertarian answers to our three questions. And those libertarian-leaning voters showed the same shift away from Republican candidates that we had identified in the 2004 election. Clearly, “two more years of war, wiretapping, and welfare-state social spending” had not brought back any of the wandering libertarians.

We did some new tests in the Zogby survey. We asked voters to identify themselves ideologically. Full results are in the article, but most respondents whom we identified as libertarian described themselves as “conservative” (41 percent) or “moderate” (31 percent). Only 9 percent called themselves “libertarian.”

But … when we asked half the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” we were quite surprised that fully 59 percent said yes. And when we asked the other half of the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” we knew the number would go down. But it only went down to 44 percent. So 44 percent of American voters are willing to label themselves as “libertarian” if it’s defined as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

We point out to Republican strategists:

After the 2000 election Karl Rove was convinced that 4 million Christian evangelicals had stayed home, and he was determined to get them to the polls in 2004. By our calculations, Republicans carried the libertarian vote by 5.5 million votes in the off-year election of 2002 and by only 2.9 million votes in 2006. That’s a swing of 2.6 million libertarian voters. Remember, it takes two new base voters to replace one swing voter who switches from one party to the other. Rove and his colleagues should have been watching out for the libertarian vote as well.

Read the article.

But wait, there’s more!

Since that article was written, David Kirby (whose number-crunching skills prove that you can actually learn something useful at the Kennedy School of Government) has analyzed newly released data from the American National Election Studies, the gold standard of public opinion research. ANES’s 2006 survey once again found that 16 percent of voters held libertarian values. And David found the following shifts from the 2002 midterm elections:

How Libertarians Voted

House              2002                2006 
D candidate       23                     46 
R candidate       70                     54 

In other words, among libertarians, the margin for Republican House candidates dropped from 47 to 8 points, a 39-point swing. (Note: ANES asked the question a slightly different way, so that votes for third-party or independent candidates were not recorded in 2006. Libertarian voters seem to vote for alternative candidates at a higher rate than other voters.)

Turning to the upper chamber,

Senate             2002                2006 
D candidate       15                     48 
R candidate       74                     52 

Among libertarians, the margin for Republican Senate candidates dropped from 59 to 4 points, a 54-point swing.

As we noted in the Cato Policy Report article, “To put this in perspective, front-page stories since the election have reported the dramatic 7-point shift of white conservative evangelicals away from the Republicans. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large.”

We reiterate our advice above to Karl Rove, and invite Democratic strategists to look carefully at the gift that Republicans are offering them.