Archives: 11/2008

Border Biometrics: “Zero Benefit?”

ZDnet ran a story last week citing how security guru Bruce Schneier slams the US-VISIT program, which collects biometrics from people entering the country, saying that it has “zero benefit.”

I respect and like Bruce — he will be a participant in a major counterterrorism strategy conference we are having at Cato in January — but I have to voice my disagreement with him on this score. My belief is that border biometrics have an extremely small benefit — a benefit that rounds to zero, and one that is more than canceled out by the costs. But not zero.

As of 2006, US-VISIT had cost about $15 billion and was responsible for the apprehension of about 1,000 criminals.

“Take that $15 billion number,” wrote Schneier in a 2006 blog post. “One thousand bad guys, most of them not very bad, caught through US-Visit. That’s $15 million per bad guy caught. Surely there’s a more cost-effective way to catch bad guys?”

He’s right, but that’s an illustration of the costs overshadowing the benefits, not zero benefit. (Net benefits are actually negative. We’d be better off letting those 1,000 criminals remain free to do their hundreds of thousands  of dollars in damage, or using conventional law enforcement methods against them, than spending $15 million each to catch them.)

In defense of border biometrics, the article cites Robert Jamison, undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, which oversees US-VISIT:

“There have been several instances of someone applying for entry under one name, being denied, applying under another name, and again being denied [due to biometrics records],” said Jamison. “In a few cases, criminal activity and, in some cases, terrorist activity have been prevented.” Jamison declined to say exactly how many terrorists had been caught as a direct result of the program, saying the information was classified.

Rather than granting Jamison’s assertions and accepting the existence of benefits, Schneier has probably done in shorthand what any good judge in a court would do: find unproven a fact that a party won’t present reliable evidence for. Though the average American (and reporter) probably does, Schneier doesn’t grant as proven whatever a self-interested national security bureaucrat claims to be true but secret.

But for the sake of argument, let’s grant that a few people with some level of terrorist intent were turned back by border biometrics. This is prevention of “terrorist activity” in the sense that a person with terrorist intent was prevented from doing something he wanted to do. But entering the country is only a small part of doing any damage once inside the country.

There’s a terrific example written up here of a man turned away at the U.S. border (not by US-VISIT but by a program called ATS-P) who later became a suicide bomber in Iraq. The implication DHS officials would like you to take from this is that preventing his entry into the country prevented a suicide bombing in the United States. In fact, it’s just as likely, if not more, that this individual became suicidal because of being turned away — he had already lived in California for two years without incident. And one can’t exclude the possibility that he was coerced to commit a bombing through threats, a hostage-taking of a family member, or some other way.

Anyway, turning someone away from the border is a trivial security against terrorism because terrorists are fungible. Turning away a known terrorist merely inconveniences a terrorist group, which just has to recruit someone different. The 9/11 attacks were conducted for the most part by people who had no known record of terrorism and who arrived on visas granted to them by the State Department. Biometric border security would have prevented none of them entering.

(Another option is physical avoidance of the border — crossing into the United States from Canada or Mexico at an uncontrolled part of the border. I know of no instance of this occurring (successfully), but it could. And, most importantly, there’s no cost-effective way to prevent it.)

In summary, border biometrics have some benefit! They are at best a mild inconvenience to terrorists — an inconvenience that the 9/11 attacks mostly anticipated. But that’s not zero benefit! It’s just negligible benefit.

In May 2007, I testified in the Senate Judiciary Committee about the costs and benefits of the REAL ID Act, a similar identity-based security system — and similarly expensive at about $17 billion. Because avoidance of identity-based security is so easy, its benefits are quite small, though I allowed it generous assumptions at every turn:

Assuming … that a future attack would be on the scale of a 9/11 — an exaggerated assumption unless all the rest of our security efforts have done nothing — REAL ID might be assumed (generously) to delay such an attack by six months. The value of delaying such an attack, and thus the security value of REAL ID, ranges from $2.24 billion to $13.1 billion. REAL ID offers less in benefits than it does costs — even using very generous assumptions.

But, again, that’s not zero benefit. It’s a very small benefit, a benefit that is far outstripped by costs. We’re doing ourselves more harm than we’re preventing with border biometrics — and that’s just on a static dollar-for-dollar basis, not accounting for lost tourism, trade, and goodwill.

More Debunking of DHS E-Verify Claims - and the Bureaucrats that Make Them

In past months, I spent a good deal of time debunking advocacy for E-Verify from the Department of Homeland Security.

The National Immigration Law Center has been in the fray for quite a while, too - they have a wealth of materials online - and recently added to it with a short, sweet primer on what it takes to comply with E-Verify: more than DHS wants to believe, that’s for sure.

That’s typical of bureaucrats, by the way. They study their programs all day every day - unaware of the challenges and priorities of real businesspeople - and come away finding it impossible to believe that someone could find their product complex.

Well, guess what? When your job is running a plumbing business, a grocery store, a restaurant, or a manufacturing plant, you don’t have all day every day to figure out your compliance issues. They’re burdens that destroy productivity.

E-Verify has been offered up as a panacea for immigration problems, but the cure is worse than the disease. I wrote at length about the regulatory burdens, complexities, and principled reasons to oppose electronic employment verification on principle in a paper called “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

I had a friendly chat with Stewart Baker, the foil in many of my “debunking” posts linked above, the other night. Affable as ever, he reported unawareness of my writings on this blog. If true, this illustrates another problem with bureaucracy: Decision-makers are insulated to the point of ignorance. Privacy advocates “can’t and won’t tell you precisely how [things like] REAL ID [and E-Verify] threaten[] privacy” if you’re not paying attention.

Cato Today

Op-Ed: “The Voters’ Message to Republicans,” by Michael D. Tanner on

Given a choice between two “big-government parties,” voters will choose the Democrats every time.

Video: Daniel J. Ikenson discusses an auto industry bailout on CNN

Where is it written in scripture and in stone that we need to have a big three?…If one of them goes down, the industry will be doing much better.

Article: “Worse Than Bush?,” by Ted Galen Carpenter in National Interest Online

Although it is hard to imagine, Obama’s foreign policy could prove even worse than that of the Bush administration.

Article: “Save Parents the Lecture,” by Neal McCluskey in

Are there things that parents could do to improve education? Sure, but they don’t need… Barack Obama lecturing them on getting involved in their kids’ learning. What they need is real power over their kids’ education. What they need is school choice—but that’s something for which Obama refuses to use his bully pulpit.

Podcast: “The New Face of the GOP,” featuring Michael D. Tanner

Simon? Yes. Garfunkel? Hmm…

The good people of Austin, Texas, have grown weary of their reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World. How else to explain the city government’s creation of a Live Music Task Force

Austin became a live-music hot spot without a government task force. Any bets on how long live music will survive now that they’ve got one?

“But wait,” you might object, “how would the task force destroy something that it exists to promote?”

I’m sure the Task Force is working on many fronts. But one obvious strategy might be to have the government decide who is a “musician” and who is not. You know, for the purpose of doling out government health benefit to musicians. Hey, if the government’s going to be passing out benefits, it has to decide who makes the cut.

And the Task Force will face some tough decisions. Right now, musicians:

Must provide 3 references who will be contacted to corroborate that applicant is a working musician (examples: club owners, booking agents, record labels, etc.)

Sounds reasonable. But is that fair to this guy just because he can’t get a gig?

Rhymin’ Simon should meet anyone’s definition. But what about GarfunkelJohn, Paul, George … yes, yes, yes. But Ringo?? The Blue Öyster Cult is a no-brainer. But what about this guy:

Does the government have any business deciding who is a musician? Even if it did, would we want it to? Is that really going to improve live music in Austin? Or the quality of health care?

Does it even occur to anyone to ask these questions?

Obama’s Tax Promises

President-elect Obama has made a slew of tax promises. Some of them are tax increases, some of them are tax cuts, and many of them are actually spending increases. Let’s try to sort them out.

Here I classify tax changes in comparison with the taxes that Americans are paying this year. I am mainly working from this excellent Urban/Brookings study.

Note that many of Obama’s proposed tax breaks are “refundable,” meaning that much of the effect is to increase federal spending, not to cut taxes. Refundable tax breaks involve cash hand-outs to many people who do not pay any federal income taxes. 

With that in mind, here are Obama’s main proposals to change the tax system from its 2008 structure:

Tax Increases

  • Raise the top two personal income tax rates from 33 and 35% to 36 and 39.6%, respectively.
  • Restore the income phase-outs for personal exemptions and itemized deductions, further increasing effective tax rates at the top end.
  • Raise the top capital gains tax rate from 15 to 20%. 
  • Raise the top dividends tax rate from 15 to 20%.
  • Increase taxes on oil and gas companies.
  • Increase taxes on U.S. multinational companies.

Combined Spending Increases / Tax Cuts

  • Making Work Pay. A refundable tax credit of up to $500 for low-income workers.
  • Mortgage Credit. A refundable tax credit of up to $800 for nonitemizers who own homes.
  • Saver’s Credit. A refundable tax credit of up to $500 per family for retirement saving.
  • American Opportunity Credit. A refundable tax credit of up to $4,000 for education expenses.
  • EITC Expansion. Expand the refundable earned income tax credit.
  • Child Care Credit. Turn the current child care credit into a refundable credit.

The Urban/Brookings analysis (pages 22 and 25) found that more than half of the dollar impact of these six tax code changes will be to increase federal spending, not to cut taxes. That’s $648 billion more in federal spending over the next ten years. In addition, Obama is proposing a new refundable tax credit for buying health insurance. 

Tax Cuts

  • Exempt people age 65 and over from federal income tax if they earn less than $50,000.
  • Minor business incentives. These promises were so small and undefined that the Urban/Brookings study didn’t even score them.


As you can see, it was genius of Obama to successfully run for the White House as tax cutter, given that most of his proposed tax code changes are tax or spending increases. Part of the problem is that the media keeps calling Obama’s proposals “middle-class tax cuts,” as on the front of the Washington Post today.

For the economy, for tax code complexity, and for the America ideal of equal treatment under law, Obama’s tax proposals would be a disaster. With Obama’s tax and spending proposals, government as Santa Claus has reached new heights.

For other posts on Obama’s tax plans, see:

Obama’s Touch Cured Me of Scrofula

Arjun Appadurai (of “Magic Ballot” fame) has replied to my recent post. I think it’s at least worth clearing up a few misconceptions:

I assume Mr. Kuznicki is sympathetic to the mission of the Cato Institute, whose name can be traced back to Cato the Younger, implacable foe of Julius Caesar. Alas, he sounds a lot more like Cato the Elder, also known as Cato the Censor, famed for his rigid moralizing, his ascetical approach to public spending, and his brutal approach to war against the enemies of Rome.

I don’t care for moralizing, and still less for war, but I’m guilty as charged when it comes to asceticism in public spending.

I believe that the government should live within its means, and that whenever possible, workers and investors should keep what they earn. Call me a penny-pincher, but I think that terming a $700 billion bank bailout “magic,” as Mr. Appadurai did, is the single weakest justification I’ve ever heard for any government project, ever. And I’ve heard some doozies before.

Calling acts of government “magic” gives our political leaders way more credit than they deserve. Our leaders may be intelligent, or charismatic, or honest, or judicious. But even the best of them are not magic. To tell the truth, I hadn’t thought this a controversial idea.

Mr. Appadurai continues:

Mr. Kuznicki is keen to remind me that the United States is a Lockean republic, that Barack Obama is not a priest or magician, that the Presidency is just a job (presumably like employment at Kinko’s) and that Obama was elected and not crowned. Well, where do I begin? I do know these facts. My essay was an interpretation of what seemed to us (not to Mr. Obama) so special about this election.

But his essay was the first to use the word “crowned,” not mine.

This election certainly was special: We shattered a racial barrier, and I’m thrilled to see it gone. We repudiated neoconservatism, our ill-conceived foreign wars, and the big-spending Bush administration. So much the better. But none of this is magic, and we don’t need the vocabulary of mysticism to express it. (In fact, I believe I just did express it.)

Mr. Appadurai also gets the following wrong:

Mr. Kuznicki is the kind of “secular” libertarian to whom the entire world of non-secular feelings, sensations, experiences and actions makes no sense, indeed it makes him sick. Well, in that case, 90% of humanity makes him sick, and perhaps 80% of the American electorate, including those who believe in faith-based philanthropy, religious calls to dialogue between faiths, and I assume the entire family of words from grace and charisma to hope and redemption also makes him sick. I am afraid there is no easy cure for this ailment.

It’s a bit silly to think that because I won’t call Barack Obama “magic,” I must have some deep-seated problem with 80% of the American electorate. I’d think, rather, that Christians would be on my side: Obama is a man and a sinner like any other, and all magic – excuse me, all glory – belongs to God.

In fact, the only thing I object to here is magical or mystical thinking about the government. The government has to serve people of all religious faiths, and of none. It can’t play favorites, and it can’t be some strange mysticism unto itself. If it were, it would alienate much of the public, and make tyrants of the rest. That’s what I object to.

A government of, by, and for the people is a huge advance over the divine rule of kings, kings who in former ages claimed that they really were magical, and whose touch was said to cure scrofula. Our leaders are human like the rest of us, and they should be open to our criticism, just like the guy at Kinko’s if he ruins our copies. That’s the genius of America: having a government we’re not afraid to criticize.

America is also about celebrating individual virtues. These virtues, however, take a pounding from Mr. Appadurai:

…Mr. Kuznicki knows the answers already and is sure that what makes the world go around are: “reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift.” I assume that when things go wrong, it is due to a deficit of these things. Well, there’s his answer to global warming, the biggest financial meltdown in the world’s wealthiest economy, military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan for the world’s most sophisticated army, not to speak of Avian flu, sudden infant death and Katrina.

“[R]eason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift” are virtues. Virtues aren’t “the” answer, but they’re the beginning of one, and it’s a weak theodicity that gives up on virtue when the going gets tough.

(Ask yourself: Can there be a solution to global warming or Avian flu – without reason? A solution to Iraq – without courage? A solution to the financial crisis without hard work and thrift? Well, yes, there can be such solutions, but we wouldn’t want to implement them.)

And you know, it’s funny. I’d imagined that liberals would really go for the “reason” line, having plausibly accused the Bush administration of waging “war on science.” But I suppose that for at least a few liberals, when their guy wins, “reason” is out the window, and “magic” is what it’s all about.

Marshall Fritz Passes

Marshall Fritz, founder of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, passed away last week. Marshall was a principled, honorable man, and one of the clearest voices for the view that the state should play no role in the education of children. He advocated parental responsibility and private philanthropy as the only proper means of ensuring universal access to education. While Marshall and I disagreed on some issues, he was always the model of civility and empathy. He strove to lead a good and charitable life, and he succeeded. Rest in peace, Marshall.