Carrying Liberalization Further

I’m in Tbilisi for our conference on “Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda.”  It starts tomorrow evening, but many of the participants are arriving tonight (Tbilisi is a great place, but not the easiest to reach, especially after the Russian government banned all travel between the Russian Federation and Georgia).  What was originally planned for 100 participants has grown to at least 180 (and maybe more).  It’s great to talk to libertarians from so many countries (28 in all) and to feel the excitement for the advancement of freedom.

The keynote speaker tomorrow night will be Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, who will speak on a topic that has gained greater significance since the Russian blockade on trade and travel with Georgia: “Globalization and Liberty.”  The speakers were chosen for their ability to inspire, as well as for their practical knowledge.  The other banquet speakers will be Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli and former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar (winner of the Cato Institute’s 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty).  I’ll be posting occasionally from the conference.

Should Government Identity Documents Use RFID?

Interesting question - and perhaps simpler than many people think. 

Back in June, the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee (on which I serve) published a draft report on the use of RFID for human tracking.  (“RFID” stands for radio frequency identification, a suite of technologies that identify items - and, if put in cards, track people - by radio.)  The report poured cold water on using RFID in government-mandated identity cards and documents.  This met with some consternation among the DHS bureaus that plan to use RFID this way, and among the businesses eager to sell the technology to the government.

Despite diligent work to put the report in final form, the Committee took a pass on it at its most recent meeting in September - nominally because new members of the Committee had not had time to consider it.  The Committee is expected to finish this work and finalize the report in December.

But skeptics of the report continue to come out of the woodwork.  Most recently, the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote a letter to the Privacy Committee encouraging more study of the issue, implicitly discouraging the Committee from finding against RFID-embedded government documents.  CDT invited ”a deeper factual inquiry and analysis [that] would foster more thoughtful and constructive public dialog.”

If the correct answer is ”no,” do you have to say “yes” to be constructive? RFID offers no anti-forgery or anti-tampering benefit over other digital technologies that can be used in identification cards - indeed it has greater security weaknesses than alternatives.  And RFID has only negligible benefits in terms of speed and convenience because it does not assist with the comparison between the identifiers on a card and the bearer of the card.  This is what takes up all the time in the process of identifying someone.   (If that’s too much jargon, you need to read my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.)

I shared my impression of CDT’s comments in an e-mail back to Jim Dempsey.  Jim and CDT do valuable work, but I think they are late to this discussion and are unwittingly undermining the Privacy Committee’s work to protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. My missive helps illustrate the thinking and the urgency of this problem, so after the jump, the contents of that e-mail:


I’ve had time now to read your follow-up comments on the Department of Homeland Security Privacy Committee’s draft report on RFID and human tracking, and you and I have spoken about it briefly.  I wanted to offer a response in writing, and make my thinking available to others, because you and CDT are important figures in discussions like this.

First, I think it’s important to put the burden of proof in the right place.  When DHS proposes a change as significant as moving to radio-frequency-based (RF), digital human identification systems, the burden of proof is on the DHS to show why they should be adopted.  The burden is not on the Committee to show why they should not.

The use of digital methods to identify people is a sea change in the process of identification.  You know well, because you have written on these subjects extensively, that digital technologies make it very easy to collect, store, copy, transfer, and re-use personal information.  The leading identification systems being proposed and deployed for use on Americans are not just digital – they go a step further and use radio frequency technology of various stripes. 

Digital identification systems, such as the government-mandated RF systems we discuss generally in the report, have entirely different consequences for privacy from the analog and visual identification methods primarily used in government ID up to this point.  We begin to explore these consequences in the report. 

The report tries to confine itself to the concerns created by the addition of RF because trying to reach all the concerns with government-mandated digital ID systems is such a formidable task and because RF systems are the leading ones under consideration and development. 

Which brings me to a second important point: These systems are being designed, built, and implemented right now

The DHS components that want to use RFID to track people are not awaiting the study or studies you propose.  The Privacy Committee’s role is to call out important privacy issues at relevant times and the draft report on using RFID for human tracking does that. 

If you wish to step back and ponder the issues, you are welcome to, but the inference I draw from your letter – that we should delay or suspend the Committee’s report on use of RFID for human tracking – would make the Committee a full participant in a program planning scenario we see too often in Washington, D.C.:  “Ready … fire … AIM!”

As you point out, the draft report does not reach every concern with every system, nor the detailed differences among them.  But it is not the job of the Committee to perform the in-depth study or studies you suggest. That is the job of the Department of Homeland Security components that seek to deploy these systems.

The members of the drafting subcommittee sought information about these systems and the privacy issues associated with them, and considered everything we were told and given by industry, privacy advocates, members of the public, and DHS components.  The information we have leads us fairly and accurately to conclude that the merits (and, through cost-benefit comparison, the net benefits) of these systems have not been shown.

I won’t belabor the specifics of all you invite the Committee to study in your comments, but I was particularly struck by your challenge to us to substantiate the following statement from the draft report:  “Without formidable safeguards, the use of RFID in identification cards and tokens will tend to enable the tracking of individuals’ movements, profiling of their activities and subsequent, non-security-related use of identification and derived information.”

Jim, we have yet to see an RF human identification system that does not collect and store information about every American subject to it for at least 75 years. You know that data collections this deep, held for periods of time this long, tend to find new, unanticipated, and often undesirable uses.  This is but one of the concerns with these systems.

Your letter is awfully sanguine for an organization that advocates for civil liberties and democratic values.  If CDT plans to do a “full and objective” assessment of RFID’s use in human tracking, I would be happy to help bring you up to speed.


Jim Harper
Director of Information Policy Studies
The Cato Institute

Nightmare Politics

If you’re not into fantasy football and the like, policy buffs around the country can now play Fantasy Congress, a website created by students at Claremont McKenna College. As the New York Times explains,

Just as in fantasy football or baseball, each player picks a team — in this case, 4 senators and 12 House members of varying seniority levels — and competes with other players in a league typically managed by a friend or a co-worker….

Players accumulate points as the legislators they have chosen go about their business on Capitol Hill. A House member or senator earns five points for introducing a bill or an amendment, and more points for negotiating successfully each step in the legislative process.

Yikes! Yes, that’s right: In this nightmare Congress, much as in the real one, you “win” by introducing laws and getting them passed. No points for keeping your mitts off our money, or for failing to rush in with a legislative pander after every headline or “Dateline” story.

And so yes, that means that the top-scoring House member is Mr. Pork, Don Young of Alaska. “Don Young’s Way” is not just a bridge in Alaska, it’s pretty much the story of Washington. And now the story of Fantasy Washington.

Hat tip: Ryan Posly.

With Allies Like These…

Close readers of my blog entries will have detected an increasingly irritated tone of late. What with farm subsidies, Doha doldrums, idiotic “solutions” to the trade deficit “problem” and a campaign season upon us, my long-suffering colleagues have become used to my cries of despair.

And now this, through a tip from my colleague and next-door-office-mate, Brink Lindsey (who has no doubt tired of my “You’ve got to be kidding me” exclaims as I read the headlines every morning). The United States has banned Vegemite, that staple food of Aussies everywhere and an emotionally crucial link to the motherland for all us expatriates living in the United States.

According to this article, the FDA allows folate (or folic acid, which has been added to Vegemite) to be added only to breads and cereals (never mind that Vegemite was practically invented for nutritional purposes, to stave off Vitamin B deficiencies).  From a 1996 news release from the FDA:

specified grain products will be required to be fortified with folic acid at levels ranging from 0.43 milligrams to 1.4 mg per pound of product. These amounts are designed to keep daily intake of folic acid below 1mg, because intakes above that amount may mask symptoms of pernicious anemia, a form of vitamin B12 deficiency which primarily affects older people.

Heaven forbid that the flood of Vegemite pouring into the United States should upset the delicately balanced just-enough-but-not-too-much-folic-acid directive from the FDA.

Australia is an ally of the United States. A small ally, yes, but loyal. Our troops have served side by side in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf wars. Australian troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, more to the point, our countries have signed a free-trade agreement

Part of me is taking comfort that this truly is a non-tariff barrier implemented to protect consumer health (misguided though that aim may be), rather than an act of disguised protectionism designed to shield the politically powerful import-competing domestic Vegemite industry located in electorally important swing-states. But it’s unfair all the same. And I’m angry.

Thank goodness my parents smuggled contraband Vegemite through customs when they visited me in July, but I think not of my own well-stocked shelves, but the growling bellies of my compatriots. I plan to share this story with my Australian friends. Expect outrage.

(Please note I am filing this under Civil Liberties, as well as Trade).

What is “Economic Insecurity” and Why Should We Care?

In his new book, The Great Risk Shift, and on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly website a couple weeks back, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker has been selling his line that “economic insecurity” is on the rise, and the state needs to do something about it.

Hacker seems to me to get a lot of mileage out of equivocating systematically between a psychological and objective sense of the word ‘insecurity’. Hacker may be right that there has been an increase in income volatility (though, I’m told, it is not clear how much this has to do with systemic economic changes, as opposed to details of Hacker’s model and the changing composition of the “households” tracked by the data), and this no doubt causes people some anxiety. But anxiety is not actual insecurity. The Bush administration, in its constant efforts to shore up political support for its so-called “global war on terror” does its best to needle Americans into feeling sufficiently anxious about the constant threat of terrorist attacks. But our anxiety and our national security are two completely separate things. We can feel anxious yet be secure, and we can feel perfectly safe at the same moment a deadly missile bears down upon us from the sky. What matters most is whether we are secure, not how we feel. Likewise with economy security.

It strikes me that Hacker’s strategy is quite like the Bush administration’s in this regard, doing his best to encourage people to feel insecure, in order to sell his favored policy remedy. But all but a very few don’t need a remedy for economic insecurity. We are economically secure. And we don’t need a remedy for volatility, either. We certainly do get anxious about it, but that’s fine. There are lots of things that make us anxious–from public speaking to finding a mate–and the right thing for the government to do about it is nothing at all.

Hacker constantly attempts to connect his proposals to the spirit of New Deal-era “economic security” policy. But this is a stretch at best, dishonest at worst. In 1937, economic security meant something clear. It meant material sufficiency–having enough to put bread on the table, a roof over your family’s head, and clothes on their backs. Hacker simply is not talking about material sufficiency, which is the basis for any notion of economic security worth caring about. He’s talking about the middle and upper middle class, about the anxiety of trading in a Volvo for a Honda. That’s not economic insecurity. That’s just a bummer.

It would be extremely difficult to satirize Hacker’s attempt to arouse our indignation, since he actually begins it with what he intends to be a sympathetic tale about a highly privileged woman with a graduate degree from Harvard worrying whether to withdraw her son from a Montessori school when her husband took a lower-paying job after the tech bubble burst. “It was as if their old life had been swept away by a hurricane,” Hacker says, not even joking. (I imagine that if Hacker ever has his car egged by ne’er-do-well kids, it will be as if a falling meteor had demolished everything he had ever known and ever loved.)

The point is not that this family did not undergo a great deal of anxiety, or have to make wrenching trade-offs in order to fit into their new budget. The point is that their real anxiety is likely less serious, and more easily fixed, than that of a balding, overweight thirty-something who fears he will never find love. The point is that their new, lower post-hurricane budget is large–leaps and bounds beyond the point of objective economic security. It is likely even large in relative terms, compared to the American median (which is itself absolutely large). And a Harvard grad degree is a more tightly-knit safety net than the U.S. government could ever devise. So why are we, qua voting citizens, supposed to be worried about her private anxieties? She is among the most economically secure cohort in the history of the known universe. Why does Hacker think this has any coherent intellectual relationship with the welfare-liberal tradition of making sure its citizens have enough to live a decent life? If the teacup travails of the bourgeoisie are supposed to raise our moral hackles and provide a legitimate basis for liberal politics, then what about our lonely balding bachelor? What can his country do for him.

If that sounds like a joke, it’s not. As Reihan Salam likes to argue, changing norms of marriage and family may play a large role in producing Hackeresque volatility. So if the anxieties based in volatile earnings are a proper matter for liberal policy, why not the anxieties about finding a wife? It’s not obvious that they are entirely separate things.

The main debate between welfare liberals and market liberals largely centers on economic security, understood properly as the odds of achieving economic sufficiency. What system of institutions is most likely to provide everyone with the resources needed to express their autonomy, realize their potential, and pursue their goals? That’s the question. Hacker doesn’t seem to me to even seriously approach it. His case for increased initiatives of state-controlled social insurance largely turns on equivocating on the traditional meaning of economic security and scandalously mischaracterizing the classical liberal ideals of private ownership, voluntary mutual aid, and personal responsibility, about which more later.


Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq

Like “Who Lost China?” in 1949-50, “How Did We Lose Iraq?” may dominate foreign policy debates in the years to come.  The consensus answer that seems to be emerging, in books like Woodward’s State of Denial and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is “through the Bush administration’s incompetence.”

And there’s certainly something there.  My lord, is there ever.  The Woodward book is an appalling chronicle of bureaucratic flight from responsibility.  It’s Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest repeating itself as farce.  It’s Dilbert plus guns, bombs, and death–and minus the laughs.

In Woodward’s telling, in the run-up to the war, those few officials who understand what an enormous task the U.S. government was contemplating aren’t listened to.  The question “what is to be done?” vanishes in a flurry of powerpoint presentations, interminable and directionless meetings, and interbranch squabbling. The month before the invasion General Jay Garner, tasked with heading up the postwar occupation authority, gathered some 200 people for a weekend-long planning and rehearsal session.  One participant analyzed the conference in a 20-page report, concluding that “the conference did not take up the most basic issue: What sort of future government of Iraq do we have in mind and how do we plan to get there?”    

And if you read the excerpts from Chandrasekaran’s book that ran in the Post, you’ll come away with the impression that the Bush administration decided to staff the Coalition Provisional Authority with back-benchers from a Grover Norquist meeting.  Applicants for positions in the interim occupation authority in Iraq had to pass muster with Pentagon political appointee Jim O’Beirne, husband of the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, and according to Chandrasekaran:

O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade

A 24-year-old Yalie/former White House intern ends up in charge of Baghdad’s stock market; Michael Ledeen’s 28-year-old daughter ends up as one of the people in charge of a $13 billion budget… and on and on.    

If you don’t have the stamina for either book, then the Frontline documentary Jerry Taylor mentions below is well worth watching.  Streaming video available here.

Both the Woodward book and the Frontline documentary blast CPA administrator Jerry Bremer for giving the orders to cashier the army and purge even low-level Baathists from government employment (orders that apparently came from Rumsfeld, in any event). A top CIA official and Bremer’s predecessor, Jay Garner, warned Bremer that the orders could cause up to 50,000 people, many of them heavily armed, to become enemies of the occupation authority.  Bremer gave the order anyway, and shortly thereafter the insurgency greatly intensified. 

A few months after leaving Iraq, Bremer, who appears to lack a sense of irony, agreed to a profile in the Washington Post Food Section touting his skills as a chef.  Apparently Bremer makes a heck of a “Fontainebleau with Pomegranate molasses.”   As Francie Bremer, his wife, notes in the article, “When Jerry goes at something 100 percent, you just have to stand back.”  Indeed.

But is it fair to place so much of the blame for our current predicament on Bremer?  Disbanding the army sure seems like a bad idea.  But would the Shiites, who, but for the Sadr uprising in 2004, have not been in open rebellion against the occupation, have been so cooperative if the U.S. left the Sunni-dominated army and Baath party intact? I don’t know.  I haven’t even had the two-week crash course in Iraqi politics that Bremer apparently put himself through after getting the nod.  But here’s a paper [.pdf] from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute raising the question.  The authors write that

measures friendly to the Sunni would have caused serious trouble within the Shia communities whose cooperation was indispensable for the success of the American effort. … Indeed, if more conciliatory gestures toward the Sunni had been paired with aggressive moves to disarm the Shia militias, the dangers of a Shia insurgency would have been very considerably enhanced. Splitting the difference between rival groups is a logical strategy in polities accustomed to resolving conflicts through tolerance, negotiation, compromise, and restraint, but where irreconcilable demands exist, the result of this method may simply be to alienate both sides.

(hat tip: Chris Preble.)

And is it fair to suggest, as the emerging conventional wisdom seems to, that the administration’s failure to appoint qualified people has led to the current humanitarian disaster in Iraq?  For what it’s worth, CPA official Dan Senor argues that the Chandrasekaran book is a biased account that ignores the many highly qualified officials that CPA had on staff.

And maybe he’s right.  The point is, this stuff is hard.  If you can’t be talked out of it, then it’s best to appoint the most qualified people.  But would a CPA led by the finest Arabists at State have successfully navigated us toward a functioning democracy?  They would still have faced a country that’s the creation of the British Empire’s arbitrary mapmakers, a state with three nations and little common ground.  They’d still have been faced with the task, as alien outsiders, of forging a national reconciliation between groups that do not appear to be ready for it.  Is there any reason to suppose that the United States government is going to be good at that sort of thing?

That’s why I’m leery of the emerging conventional wisdom.  It smacks of John Kerry’s confused position during the 2004 campaign: “I was (sort of) for the Iraq War.  But I’m firmly against screwing it up.”  Well who isn’t?  But if the lesson we learn about this shameful mess is simply that we ought to appoint better people to run the occupation in our next “war of choice”, then we won’t have learned much at all. 

Preparing Children for Adulthood

From the Washington Post:

Recess is dangerous. There’s all that name-calling, roughhousing and bullying. And the fast running! Why a child might trip, fall, even – and perhaps more important – sue.

Given such perils, Willett Elementary School, south of Boston, has cracked down on tag and other “chasing games.” Pia Durkin, the district superintendent, told the Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass., that children’s energies should be better directed toward “good, sound, supervised play.” 

So they’ll be prepared for good, sound, supervised lives.