Big Brother Wants to Watch You Drive

In 2008, the Washington legislature passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. California and Oregon laws or regulations have similar but somewhat less draconian targets.

The Obama administration wants to mandate that all new cars come equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, so the car can send signals to and receive messages from street lights and other infrastructure.

Now the California Air Resources Board is considering regulations requiring that all cars monitor their owners’ driving habits, including but not limited to how many miles they drive, how much fuel they use, and how much pollution or greenhouse gases they emit.

Put these all together and you have a system in which the government will not only know where your vehicle is at all times, but can turn off your vehicle if it decides you are driving too much or driving in a way that emits too many grams of carbon dioxide or is otherwise offensive to some bureaucratic imperative.

I sometimes think privacy advocates are a paranoid bunch, seeing men in black around every corner and surveillance helicopters or drones in the air at all times. On the other hand, if a technology is available–such as the ability to record cell phone calls–the government has proven it will use it.

Consider all of the lovable progressives out there who think the government should “punish climate change liars,” meaning people who have differing opinions on scientific issues. It’s not much a stretch to think that, any time they happen to be in power, they will use the available technology to make people stop driving. After all, just how important can that extra trip to the supermarket be compared to the absolute imperative of preventing the seas from rising a quadrillionth of an inch?

Of course, the elected officials and bureaucrats who run this system will exempt themselves from the rules. After all, nothing is more important than their work of running the country and making sure people don’t abuse their freedom by engaging in too much mobility.

As California writer Steven Greenhut points out, we already have red-light cameras, and some “eastern states have suspended drivers from using toll lanes after their transponders showed them to be speeders.” They’re not invading our privacy, the greens will argue, they are just making sure that our actions aren’t harming Mother Earth.

Of course, for many it really isn’t about greenhouse gas emissions. Mobility allows (or, as anti-auto groups would say, forces) people to living in low-density “sprawl” where they can escape taxation by cities eager to subsidize stadiums, convention centers, and light-rail lines. All they have to do is ramp down people’s monthly driving rations–something like a cap-and-trade system that steadily reduces the caps–and suburbanites will eventually find that they have to move back to the cities.

No doubt some will argue that even those who drive the most fuel-efficient cars should be subject to the same driving limits because suburban homes waste energy too. Or that people will be safer from terrorists if they are all jammed together in cities close to emergency facilities than if they are spread across the countryside. Or that suburbanites are parasites on the cities and should be reassimilated back into the cities’ benign embrace and taxing districts.

Whatever the argument, the point is that if the technology is there, the government will use it. If people really want to buy cars that monitor their every move and are capable of communicating those moves to some central infrastructure, they should be allowed to do so. But allowing the government to mandate these things is simply asking to have well-meaning, and sometimes not-so-well-meaning, government bureaucrats control how we travel and where we live.

Japan’s Defense Budget Is Still Inadequate

The Japanese government and Western news outlets are highlighting Tokyo’s commitment to increase its military spending for the third straight year.  Pundits and policy experts see the boost as a response to the spike in bilateral tensions with China—especially the bitter dispute concerning sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.  But as with similar moves by the Baltic republics and Washington’s other NATO allies that reflect worries about Russia’s recent behavior, there is more symbolism than substance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision. 

Japan’s defense budget for the fiscal year beginning in April will be 4.98 trillion yen ($42 billion). The increase is quite modest—up from 4.84 trillion yen in the current year. Moreover, even the larger sum is less than half of China’s official military budget and less than one-third of what the Pentagon and most independent experts believe is Beijing’s actual level of spending. Although Japan’s “Self Defense Forces” already can deploy a significant amount of modern weaponry, such a large disparity in spending is cause for concern. 

That is especially true since Abe’s government has adopted an increasingly assertive posture toward China on a range of issues. In one sense, U.S. officials have reason to be gratified by that move and Tokyo’s greater overall interest in East Asia’s security. Japan finally seems to be taking steps to become a normal great power regarding military matters instead of clinging to pacifism and relying on the United States to protect important Japanese interests. Abe’s efforts to “reinterpret” Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which officially places draconian restraints on the military, also reflect the shift in thinking.

The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

Recollections on Fannie Mae’s Housing Goals

With the release of Peter Wallison’s new book, Hidden in Plain Sight, I suspect the debates over the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis may heat up again (I suspect Joe Nocera is working up a nasty review).  Anyone interested in the financial crisis should read this book.  It is extensively documented and well-written.  While the narrative is similar to other of Wallison’s writings, he musters far more evidence for his case here. The amount of contemporaneous material from advocates, HUD and the GSEs (Fannie and Freddie) is impressive.

I’ve generally been on the fence about the housing goals, as I have felt that GSE leverage was a far greater issue.  The book leaves me more sympathetic to Wallison’s argument.  For the best counter-argument regarding the goals, see John Weicher’s paper on the issue (unlike Nocera, Weicher includes facts and analysis). 

How I-Squared Would Affect Employment Based Green Cards

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the I-Squared Act of 2015 to reform the high-skilled immigration system.  Most of this bill attempts to improve the H-1B visa for temporary highly skilled workers by making the workers more legally mobile and increasing the quotas for that visa.  The H-1B is a dual-intent guest worker visa program, meaning that workers on the H-1B can pursue a green card while working on a temporary visa. The H-1B is a pipeline to the employment-based (EB) green card.

Most commentators will focus on the important and positive proposed reforms to the H-1B visa.  In contrast, I will focus on the reforms to the employment-based (EB) green card program.  I-Squared would exempt several categories of workers and their family members from the numerical quota imposed on EB green cards.  Although I-Squared does not increase the numerical quota, effectively it more than doubles the quota through exemptions.  As I detail here, this is a very positive move for U.S. economic growth.  Below I detail many of the exemptions in I-Squared and then make some suggestions for further streamlining and liberalizing the system.

Exempting Dependents

The most important exemption in I-Squared for EB green cards is for the spouses and children of workers.  Under current statutory interpretation, the family members of these workers count against the quota. Fifty-five percent of those who received the EB green card were the spouses and children of workers in 2013.  Allowing those spots to instead be filled with workers would more than double their number going forward.      

2013 Employment Based Green Cards: Families and Workers

Source: 2013 Yearbook on Immigration Statistics, Table 7.

Republicans Should Offer Their Own Climate Change Amendment to Keystone XL Measure

As we predicted here, the Senate’s Keystone XL Pipeline legislation is going to be pelted with global warming-related amendments from Democrats as the price for a veto-proof bill. Most interesting is one by Bernie Sanders (S-VT) which asks the Senate to vote on whether climate change is real and made “worse” by dreaded carbon dioxide emissions.

Of course the first part is true—“climate” and “change” go hand-in-hand.  But the fact is that the warming that is occurring is happening at a rate far below what was forecast, and hasn’t been happening at all for 18+ years now.  So, perhaps some Republican will propose an amendment that in fact approaches the truth in this nuanced issue.

Perhaps, “Climate change is real and it is demonstrable that the climate models used by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict the future are on the verge of failure.”

US Lifts Ban on Long Haul Truck Deliveries From Mexico

The United States has finally ended a ban on long haul truck deliveries from Mexico.  The U.S. government promised to lift the ban twenty years ago as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but caved in to pressure from the Teamsters union claiming that Mexican trucks would be a safety hazard on U.S. roads.  Twenty years of data and two pilot programs seem to have been enough to convince your government that, in this case at least, Mexicans are just as good at doing things as other people.

But surely, you protest, the complaint could not have been that Mexicans are incompetent, but that Mexican safety standards and regulations are overly lax or poorly enforced.  To be fair, the Teamsters union has claimed that Mexican trucks are subject to inadequate regulation and that their drivers are poorly trained.  This argument would perhaps be meaningful if it weren’t so inexcusably misleading.  The fact is that all Mexican trucks operating in the United States have to get permits that require prescreening and regular inspections. 

In short, Mexican trucks operating in the United States are regulated by the U.S. government.  The only difference is the nationality of the truck’s driver and owner.