Federal Education Tax Credits. So Close, and yet…

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) has introduced a federal education tax credit bill (“America’s Class Act”) modeled on a program in his home state. The Pennsylvania program is indeed an excellent concept, allowing businesses to make tax-creditable donations to private scholarship funds that in turn help low income families gain access to independent schools. Donation tax credit programs such as this are one of the two critical components in an ideal market education policy (the other being a personal tax credit for parents who choose independent schools for their children).

Unfortuntalely, the unmitigated merits of this policy at the state level are heavily mitigated at the federal level. First, because the Federal government is accorded no role in education whatsoever by our Constitution (“oh, that old thing?!”). And second, because any regulatory encroachment of the independent education sector by the federal government will suffocate schools from sea to sea, leaving nowhere for truly independent schools to thrive.

I’ve already made this case with respect to vouchers, and while I’m more fond of tax credits as a market education reform, federal involvement in this area is still problematic.

ID-Based Security Is Broken - and Can’t Be Fixed

The Government Accountability Office testified to the Senate Finance Committee today that investigators were easily able to pass through borders using fake documents. Indeed, sometimes documents were not checked at all.

“This vulnerability potentially allows terrorists or others involved in criminal activity to pass freely into the United States from Canada or Mexico with little or no chance of being detected.”

That’s true, but shoring up that vulnerability would add little security while devastating trade and commerce at the border.

Identity-based security works by comparing the identity of someone to their background and determining how to treat them based on that. To start, you need accurate identity information. That’s not easy to come by from people who are trying to defeat your identity system.

Here’s a schematic of how identification cards work from my book Identity Crisis.

As you can see, proof of identity involves three steps: Info goes from the person to the card issuer; info goes from the issuer to the verifier via the card; and the verifier checks to make sure the person and the card match.

Each of these steps is a point of weakness. Let’s take them in reverse order:

Obviously, as the GAO found, if nobody looks at the ID card, the “verifier check” can’t be done and the system fails. If the verifier is careless, the system will also fail. This weakness can be fixed with machine-read biometrics, but that is time-consuming and it typically subjects everyone to monitoring, tracking, surveillance – whatever you prefer to call it.

If the card can be forged or altered, this compromises card security, the second point of weakness in the process. Weakness in card security (non-obvious forgery) is what GAO sought to expose when it stumbled across the fact that border agents weren’t checking IDs at all. Card security can also be fixed various ways, though the best, such as encryption, will also tend to increase monitoring, tracking, and surveillance of every card-holder.

The first step is the hardest by far to fix: getting accurate information about people onto cards. For anyone wanting to defeat the current U.S. identification system, there is a substantial trade in documents that are false but good enough to fool Department of Motor Vehicle employees into issuing drivers’ licenses and cards. Criminals also regularly use the option of corrupting DMV employees to procure false documents. Can this problem be curtailed? Yes. Solved? No.

For the sake of argument, let’s fix all these things with a cradle-to-grave, government-mandated, biometric tracking system. Enough to make even the irreligious think “mark of the beast.” Even then, we will not have effective security against serious criminals and terrorists. The greatest weakness of identification-based security remains.

Knowing who a person is does not reveal what they think or what they plan to do. Examples are legion in terrorism, and routine in crime, of people with no record of wrongdoing being the ones who act.

For example, Al Qaeda selected operatives for the 9/11 attacks who had no known records of involvement in terrorism. (See 9/11 Commission report, page 234.) It was operating in a mode to defeat watch-listing well before the spasm of watch-listing that underlies identification-checks like the ones GAO has found so flawed.

If we were to have a comprehensive, mandatory, biometric identification system, it would help find bad people after they are identified, but do little to secure against attackers who are not already known. Al Qaeda planners would have to continue factoring in a risk they have already accounted for.

And having such a system should be a big “if.” Subjecting all Americans to increased monitoring, surveillance, and tracking, then delaying their lawful trade and travel at the borders, would do a lot of damage to liberty and commerce. It would provide only a tiny margin of security – almost no margin against sophisticated threats.

Hollywood for Ugly People

With the weather hotter than Hell here in Washington, and partisan warfare ramping up for the ‘06 elections, there are two pieces today that help remind us what a weird, perverse place Capitol Hill, in particular, has become.

First, in this morning’s New York Times, Mark Leibovich wedges his tongue firmly into his cheek and explores the phenomenon of the “Senators Only” elevators in the Senate.

The basic rule is this: nonsenators are allowed to ride only if asked by a senator. Such invitations typically occur when a reporter is in mid-interview with a senator walking off the Senate floor.

Lobbyists have been known to park themselves outside elevators with attractive young women, the better to win invitations. To be sure, such tactics took place only in earlier eras, when senators held a less enlightened view of women.

(In 1994, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was said to have engaged in excessive touching of his then-freshman colleague Patty Murray of Washington. Ms. Murray later asked for and received an apology from Mr. Thurmond, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Murray declined to comment.)

[Former Louisiana senator John] Breaux concluded the matter with a nod to the public good: “I think the elevators are designed to keep members of the public from having to ride with senators,” he said.

Then, the New Republic runs a piece on the phenomenon of ostensibly pro-“traditional values” congresscritters jettisoning the ol’ ball and chain back home and taking up with nubile young Washington groupies. The piece could perhaps best be summed up by invoking

Susan LaTourette’s remarks in late 2003, after her husband of 21 years, Representative Steve LaTourette, revealed that he was having an affair with a lobbyist and wanted a divorce. “I think Washington corrupts people,” a furious Susan announced. “He was a wonderful husband and father, the best I ever saw, until he went there. … Now he’s one of them. All they care about is getting reelected. I hate them all.”

What can we do about the inflated egos, insularity, even cults of personality on the Hill? There’s a clear enough solution.

Feds Lock Up Blogger

The grand jury was created to check the government, but it has been turned into a prosecutorial bulldozer that now tramples over civil liberties.

Item: Josh Wolf, 24, is a freelance journalist and blogger. He wanted to be left alone, but the feds have locked him up because he will not help them investigate the crimes of other people. We generally have the freedom to help the police or to decline. It is up to us to decide. Not so with grand juries. Cooperate–or go to jail. As Mr. Wolf was escorted to his jail cell, the judge intoned that he was not being punished. Rather, the government was merely housing Mr. Wolf with suspected criminals so that he might “change his mind.” Mr. Wolf cannot even challenge the legality of this “procedure” before a real jury because he is not being “punished.” Mr. Wolf is in grandjuryland.

Item: Federal prosecutors are now perusing the phone records of reporters for the New York Times. There was no search warrant that was approved by a federal judge. The records were acquired by a grand jury subpoena, which does not require the approval of a judge. Indeed, prosecutors can issue such subpoenas without even notifying the grand jurors.

Few people appreciate the incredible powers of the grand jury–and it is safe to say that the government likes it that way.

New Higher Ed Think Tank in Town

There is a new group joining the national debate over higher education, and unlike many student advocates and higher education associations, its leader, economist Richard Vedder, knows that pouring more money into colleges and universities just expands the ivory tower, it doesn’t make the tower better.

Welcome, Center for College Affordability and Productivity! It’s nice to have you with us.

Hillary’s Rural Renaissance

Further to David Boaz’s post below on the Democratic Leadership Council’s recent spending plans, Senator Hillary Clinton has called for a “rural renaissance” to “restore the promise and prosperity to main streets and rural communities.” The full press release can be viewed here, but these are the main points:

  • A “national broadband strategy” to “coordinate and maximize federal resources” which would newly include a National Rural Broadband Innovation Fund and the creation of a single office run by an “administrator” that would provide a “one-stop shopping clearing house for innovators and businesses that want to expand broadband in rural areas.” Strange, but from where I’m standing, the Internet seems to have evolved pretty well without government interference so far.
  • A “Rural Regional Investment Program, which would provide equity investments to fund innovative opportunities and partnerships in rural areas” that would “provide rural communities with flexible resources to develop comprehensive, collaborative, locally-controlled planning and to foster innovative community and economic development strategies.” Senator Clinton’s proposal also includes more “help” in administering small private loans “pooling private capital and administering that capital through trusted intermediaries” (overseen by the Federal government, presumably). As the seemingly inexhaustible stream of money to ethanol production has shown, investment money to rural areas seems to flow quite nicely when investors see promising (if pork-induced) returns.
  • Speaking of ethanol, Senator Clinton would like to see the creation of a $1 billion Strategic Energy Fund to “support [the] rapid development of renewable energy, including biofuels.”
  • Then there are a host of other measures, including so-called “green” payments, a more reliable safety net that would “help manage risk” and include counter-cyclical payments (the most trade distorting and offensive kind to our trade partners), and more spending on health care and rural education.

The US Government has been lavishing subsidies on farmers since the New Deal in the 1930s, and has spent over $55 billion propping up the agricultural sector since the enactment of the 2002 Farm Bill. Far from giving away even more of taxpayers’ money, surely it is time for the government to stop giving agriculture special treatment and to allow farmers to carry the risks and reap the rewards of their investments, just like every other businessperson in America.

Prairie Pugilists Keep on Fighting

Were the creationism vs. evolution battle in Kansas a prize fight, no one who bought a ticket to it or purchased pay-per-view would be disappointed. It has gone on forever, with one combatant constantly getting the upper hand only to see his opponent reenergize and take it back. Yesterday, the momentum seemed to be changing once again, with supporters of evolution on the verge of regaining two seats on the state Board of Education, which would give it a 6 to 4 pro-evolution majority.

Of course, the creationism conflict in Kansas – and, indeed, across America – isn’t a prize fight. It’s a battle between the deeply held values of regular people, and unlike Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield, Kansas children, parents, and other citizens aren’t being richly compensated for the punishment they’re taking. They’re fighting because they have to. They all have to support one system of public education, and they all, rightfully, want their beliefs and morals respected.

And so the fight goes on, into rounds we lost count of long ago.

Thankfully, there is a way to end this death match, but it will require that both combatants do something that so far they’ve seemed unwilling to consider. Rather than exchanging blows in perpetuity, they could agree to let each other have what they want. They could cease forcing all people to support a single system of government-created and government-run schools, and implement school choice, giving parents control over their children’s education by letting them pick schools that share their values.

It is, really, a simple way to end a seemingly endless brawl. Unfortunately, right now it seems that too many people would prefer to keep on fighting.