A Great End to the Conference on ‘Freedom, Commerce, and Peace’

I’m really happy with the conference on “Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda.” We had Georgians and Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, Armenians and Azeris, Iranians and Iraqis, Romanians and Moldovans, and on and on…28 nations in all.

The first discussion of the last day of the conference was of a high order, with Robert Lawson speaking on the Economic Freedom of the World Report and Cato’s new Senior Fellow Andrei Illarionov offering a high-level critique of methodology and suggestions for improvements. The discussion was very scientific and really focused attention on the issues of explaining the relationship between liberty and well being. Ricardo Martinez Rico, former Deputy Minister for the Budget of Spain, gave a fascinating and practical guide to how Spain managed to get its state budget under control, along with concrete proposals for the assembled reformers from Eurasia.

The three workshops (organizing a think-tank, involving free media in public information campaigns, and using the economic freedom of the world data to promote reform) went well, as did Johan Norberg’s presentation on the environmental case for property rights, which moved participants to avoid environmental disasters by promoting transferrable rights in fisheries, forests, and other natural resources. Some other highlights were former Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare-Ozbolt’s presentation on “Improving the Rule of Law” and the presentation and discussion of Warren Coats’s paper on “Creating Monetary Stability and Financial Sector Freedom.” (Ok, the others were good, too, notably the energetic presentation by my friend from Belarus, Jaroslav Romanchuk, on how to convince the public of the benefits of liberty.) 

The papers will be collected and edited over the coming months; my plan is to publish them in English and in Russian editions.

Finally, the concluding banquet address by former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar was outstanding — the perfect rousing and inspiring conclusion to the conference.

I’m confident that this conference will go a long way toward creating and strengthening a network of classical liberal reformers throughout Eurasia, all armed with practical information and advice on how to promote the rule of law, individual liberty, and peace. And I’m so, so, so happy about it — especially now that the work’s over.

I took the day off on Sunday and took a long trip with other foreign participants to Kakheti to visit ancient Georgian churches, see the countryside, and taste the local wines. The churches were remarkable, the countryside showed how important economic growth is and how much (it’s currently running about 11%) will be necessary to overcome the legacy of Soviet poverty (as shown by the ruined churches we visited). But the process is clearly underway, as evidenced by the rationalization of and improvements to the wine industry. In addition to the natural beauty and the remarkably hospitable people, the wine and food in Kakheti were excellent. (I’m a big fan of Georgian wines. They’re excellent. If you have a chance to try them, ask for the dry wines of Mukuzani or Sapaveri.)

The Deval in Massachusetts

The establishment media are swooning over Deval Patrick, former civil rights chief in the Clinton administration and now on the verge of being the first black governor of Massachusetts. The New York Times says, “Mr. Patrick’s greatest assets include his charismatic personality, inspiring speaking style and biography.” The Washington Post reports long-time non-voters in tears over his ”message of optimism, his personal charisma and his uplifting personal story.” David Broder hails him as “New Star among the Democrats.”

But Deval Patrick’s personal story isn’t quite so uplifting to advocates of equality under the law. When he was named to be assistant attorney general for civil rights by President Clinton, after Lani Guinier’s nomination was withdrawn under fire, he came under the same sort of criticism. Clint Bolick, then with the Institute for Justice, called him “pro-quota” and a “stealth Guinier” who held the same views but lacked the same paper trail.

After Patrick took office, he seemed to confirm Bolick’s warnings. In 1995, Bolick called him “a master at using the threat of expensive litigation to extort concessions from municipalities and organizations.” (Alas, none of these op-eds and news articles from the 1990s seem to be online, but they can be found in Nexis.) He testified in 1995 oversight hearings that Patrick was “shedding any pretense of impartial law enforcement in favor of unbridled ideological activism” at the Justice Department.

Bolick wasn’t alone in his criticisms. “Deval Patrick has committed the Clinton administration to a vision of racial preference that fulfills the most extravagant fantasies of a conservative attack ad,” wrote Jeffrey Rosen in a 1994 New Republic article. “Rather than honestly confronting the costs of affirmative action, Patrick has blithely endorsed the most extreme form of racialism.” Nat Hentoff denounced one of Patrick’s most famous cases, when he sided with the Piscataway, N.J., school board’s decision to fire a white teacher in the name of “diversity.”

These days, Patrick endorses the standard tired litany of big-government liberalism: more tax money for middle-class housing, more tax money for low-income housing, more tax money for schools, more tax money for jobs and education for ex-cons, more tax money for alternative energy. Oh, and property tax relief. But his record suggests a propensity for more authoritarian policies to ensure that his moral vision prevails.

As for the title, a tip of the hat to Marion L. Starkey, author of the acclaimed book, The Devil in Massachusetts, about Massachusetts leaders who would go to extraordinary means to root out the merest allegations of sin.

Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train

A recent report reveals that Amtrak spent a staggering $102.6 million on outside legal counsel between June 2002 and June 2005. The review, requested by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also finds that Amtrak improperly managed its legal contracts and failed to provide proper oversight (as if simply wasting more than a tenth of a billion dollars wasn’t enough).

Members of the committee are predictably outraged.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL) said, “Amtrak’s management of outside legal services has been found to be in serious disarray, with virtually no attention focused on costs and expenditures.”

Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) remarked, “Amtrak is continually showing us it is incapable of effectively spending the $1 billion in federal funding it receives each year.”

But before we label these folks paragons of fiscal responsibility, keep in mind that last year this same committee passed a bill that would recommend a 67 percent increase in federal funding for Amtrak. The bill is highlighted on the committee’s list of its proudest accomplishments, despite the fact that the full House of Representatives never brought it up for a vote.

And they call this a “do-nothing” Congress?

Fake Boarding Pass Generator Underscores ID Woes

Yesterday, the blogosphere crackled with news that ‘net surfers could use a website to generate fake boarding passes that would enable them to slip past airport security and gain access to airport concourses. The news provides a good opportunity to illustrate a credentialing (and identity) system, how it works, and how it fails.

It’s very complicated, so I’m going to try to take it slowly and walk through every step.

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) separates commercial air passengers into two categories: those deemed to require additional security scrutiny — termed “selectees” — and those who are not. When a passenger checks in at the airport, the air carrier’s reservation system uses certain information from the passenger’s itinerary for analysis in CAPPS. This analysis checks the passenger’s information against the CAPPS rules and also against a government-supplied “watch list” that contains the names of known or suspected terrorists.

Flaws in the design and theory of the CAPPS system make it relatively easy to defeat. A group with any sophistication and motivation can test the system to see which of its members are flagged, or what behaviors cause them to be flagged, then adjust their plans accordingly.

A variety of flaws and weaknesses inhabit the practice of watch-listing. Simple name-matching causes many false positives, as so many Robert Johnsons will attest. But the foremost weakness is that a person who is not known to be a threat will not be listed. Watch-listing does nothing about people or groups acting for the first time.

In addition, a person who is known and listed can elude the system by using an alias. The use of a false or synthetic identity (and thus an inaccurate boarding card) could assist in this. But the simplest wrongful use of this fake boarding card generator would be to make a boarding card that allows a known bad person to receive no more security scrutiny than all the good people.

When CAPPS finds that a passenger should be given selectee status, this is transmitted to the check-in counter where a code is printed on the passenger’s boarding pass. At the checkpoint, the boarding pass serves as a credential indicating that the person is entitled to enter the concourse, and also indicating what kind of treatment the person should get — selectee or non-selectee. The credential is tied to the person bearing it by also checking a government-issued ID.

In a previous post, I included a schematic showing how identification cards work (from my book Identity Crisis). This might be helpful to review now because credentials like the boarding pass work according to the same three-step process: First, an issuer (the airline) collects information, including what status the traveler has. Next, the issuer puts it onto a credential (the boarding pass). Finally, the verifier or relying party (the checkpoint agent) checks the credential and accords the traveler the treatment that the credential indicates.

Checking the credential bearer’s identification, a repeat of this three-step process, and comparing the names on both documents, ties the boarding pass to the person (and in the process imports all the weaknesses of identification cards).

Each of these steps is a point of weakness. If the information is bad, such as when a malefactor is not known, the first step fails and the system does not work. If the malefactor is using someone else’s ticket and successfully presents a fake ID, the third step has failed and the system does not work.

The simple example we’re using here breaks the second step. A person traveling under his own name may present a boarding pass for the flight for which he has bought a ticket — but the false boarding pass he presents does not indicate selectee status. He has eluded the CAPPS system and the watch list.

The fake boarding pass generator does not create a new security weakness. It reveals an existing one. Though some people may want to, it’s important not to kill the messenger (who, in this case, is a Ph.D. student in security infomatics at Indiana University who created the pass generator to call attention to the problem). As I’ve said before, identity-based security is terribly weak. Its costs — in dollars, inconvenience, economic loss, and lost privacy — are greater than its security benefit.

Hopefully, the revelation that people can use fake boarding passes to elude CAPPS and watch-lists is another step in the long, slow process of moving away from security systems that don’t work well, toward security systems that do. Good security systems address tools and methods of attack directly. They make sure all passengers on an airplane lack the capacity to do significant harm.

It’s Not Fair, Your Schools Are Designed to Work Better!

Charter schools, which often live and die on the whims of public officials, are at best a pale shade of choice. Still, at least in Los Angeles, even charters have enough freedom to work better than traditional public schools. And that just ain’t fair.

District officials, as well as the president of the teachers union, bristle at assertions by the Charter Schools Association that middle and high school charters are significantly outperforming their district counterparts.

A fairer comparison would be with the district’s magnet schools, which outperform charters, school board member Jon Lauritzen said.

“I think it’s basically unfair to compare an entity that is able to take their entire budget and focus it entirely on their own schools,” he said. “They have some real advantages over our schools in the flexibility of actually providing the type of education that a particular community wants, whereas we are trying to provide a curriculum that works for everyone all across the school district.”

Yeah! Lauritzen is right! I mean, the nerve of people creating schools that can provide what parents and communities want!

It’s no wonder that, a few months ago, Mr. Lauritzen proposed a moratorium on charter schools, and that public schooling’s defenders fight even harder against reforms like vouchers and tax credits. After all, who could just sit by and watch parents get schools they want when an old, hopeless system is suffering?