Archives: 11/2009

U.S. “the Most Open Market”? Not Even Close

Accompanying the president on his trip to China this week, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk couldn’t resist repeating the old line that the United States is “the most open market in the world.” The chief U.S. trade negotiator was trying to rebut criticism from Chinese officials that the Obama administration, with its 35 percent tariff on Chinese tire imports and all that, has retreated from a commitment to free trade.

The administration’s “more open than thou” rebuttal is a weak one. As I write in Chapter 9 of my new Cato book, Mad about Trade:

If an Olympics were held for the most open economy, the United States would be out of medal contention. According to the most recent annual Economic Freedom of the World Report, people living in 26 other countries enjoy greater “freedom to trade internationally” than do Americans. The report considers not only tariffs on imports but regulatory barriers, exchange rate and capital controls, and actual levels of trade. Bragging rights for the most open economies belong to, in descending order, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Chile, the Netherlands, Ireland, Hungary, Switzerland, the Slovak Republic, and Estonia. The United States lies back in the pack, in 27th place among the 140 ranked nations.

Despite the claims of openness, our government imposes significant barriers against imported clothing, footwear, leather products, glassware, watches, clocks, table and kitchenware, costume jewelry, pens, mechanical pencils, musical instruments, cutlery, hand tools, ball and roller bearings, ceramic wall and floor tile, railway cars, processed fruits and vegetables, rice, cotton, sugar, milk, cheese, butter and canned tuna.

Since the book was printed, a new Economic Freedom of the World Report has been published. The United States has slipped to the 28th “most open market in the world.”

John Yoo on Civilian Trials for Terrorism Cases

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an article by John Yoo that criticized the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and several of his fellow Guantanamo prisoners in civilian court.  Yoo makes too many claims for me to respond to in a blog post, but let me address a few.

According to Yoo, “The treatment of the 9/11 attacks as a criminal matter rather than an act of war will cripple American efforts to fight terrorism.  It is in effect a declaration that this nation is no longer at war.”  That is an odd thing to say for several reasons.  First, it is all over the news: We are still very much at war.  Second, even if Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, would the United States really be “crippled” in the fight against bin Laden?  ”Crippled”  suggests the U.S. is on the verge of joining Costa Rica or Belize in terms of our military strength.  Farfetched.  Third, the Bush administration also treated the 9/11 attacks as a criminal matter when it indicted and prosecuted Zacarias Moussaoui in civilian court.  Yoo seems to think that that call was mistaken, but did it ”cripple” the U.S.?  Did the Bush administration, in effect, declare that the U.S. was “no longer at war”?  Of course not.  So why does Yoo make that claim now?  Odd.

Next, Yoo complains that by bringing KSM to New York for a civilian trial, the prisoner will get to “enjoy the benefits and rights that the Constitution accords to citizens and resident aliens.”  This is another odd statement because the benefits of a civilian trial (public trial, jury trial, calling witnesses, confronting adverse witnesses, etc) are not limited to citizens and resident aliens.  After all, Asian tourists and illegal immigrants from Mexico, to take two examples, are not “citizens” or “resident aliens.”  If a federal prosecutor were to accuse them of a crime, they would get a trial in civilian court.  A claim that the government could deny, say, a nonresident alien from China a civilian trial would be totally at odds with American constitutional law.  Yoo may disagree with that law, but if he does, he should have made that clear because he left a misleading impression.

Third, Yoo calls the Moussaoui trial a “circus” because it provided Moussaoui with a “platform to air his anti-American tirades.”  Well, to start, just because Yoo calls a trial a “circus” does not make it so.  The federal judge in the Moussaoui case did what we would expect a good American judge to do–that is, give the person who is accused of the crime a fair opportunity to speak and to offer a defense.   At the same time, the  judge must maintain order in the courtroom and anyone who becomes disruptive (including the accused) can be removed.  The potential problem of  a “tirade” is nothing new and is not, of course, limited to persons who share bin Laden’s twisted worldview.  Some recent examples include the Unabomber and the shooter at the Holocaust museum.  In short, it is a weak argument to critique our system of civilian trials because the defendant may want to insist on saying something that is unpopular, unpleasant, or incoherent.  And, at the time of sentencing, a trial judge can respond, as Judge William Young did when he sentenced Richard Reid to life behind bars.

For more on the subject of military commissions, go here and here.  For more on John Yoo, go here and here.

Fort Hood: That No Such Attack Ever Occurs Again

Colleagues and correspondents have kindly shared their understandable discomfort with my conclusion in recent posts that the Fort Hood shooting was nearly impossible to discover in advance, and thus prevent.

The one ray of hope I can offer is that the shooting itself makes such things more foreseeable, putting the military community and investigators on notice prospectively that this kind of thing can happen. No formal policy change can do more than the Fort Hood shooting itself to ferret out inchoate incidents like it in the future. Belief that the Fort Hood shooting was easily preventable, though, is 20/20 hindsight.

I first read How We Know What Just Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life to get a handle on how it became so plausible after the September 11, 2001 attacks that terrorists might next use chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Recall that their weapons of choice for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were box cutters. How did we proceed to the assumption that nuclear terrorism was next?

One explanation is the “representativeness heuristic,” a mental shortcut people use to organize the world around them. “According to this overarching belief, effects should resemble their causes, instances should resemble the categories of which they are members, and, more generally, like belongs with like.” (page 133)

Big causes have big effects, so big effects come from big causes. … Right?

The 9/11 terrorists knocked down the World Trade Center and killed 3,000 people. Driven to match the huge effects of the those attacks to a sufficient cause, our common sense imported skills, knowledge, weapons, and organizational capability that terrorists do not in fact have. (Ongoing pressure worldwide will ensure that remains true.)

As to the 9/11 attacks, the representativeness heuristic lead us astray. I believe a similar mental error is at play in many people’s interpretation of the Fort Hood incident.

Though it’s not true, many maternity room nurses believe that more babies are born during a full moon than at other times. This is because of confirmation bias: They notice babies born during full moons and accumulate proof of the full-moon theory—but they fail to notice babies born at other times.

How We Know What Just Isn’t So has a chapter called “Too Much from Too Little: The Misrepresentation of Incomplete and Unrepresentative Data” that discusses not only the excessive impact of confirmatory information, but also the problem of hidden or absent data. We make many judgments in life without considering all the relevant data.

An extreme instance of this is Fort Hood, about which political leaders and millions of Americans are taking a few data points—one or two things occurring—and concluding from them that all instances of these things result in a shooting or other violence like we saw at Fort Hood. But, as I said with regard to Nidal Hasan’s contacts with a jihadi in Yemen, the relevant data includes thousands of times when such things happen. Because they were offshore communications with a jihadi, investigators appropriately examined the messages and found them lacking signs of intended violence.

The other major indictment is that Hasan’s Islamist rantings should have been a dead giveaway of violence to come. Political correctness drove colleagues to turn a blind eye to Hasan, ”permitting” the Fort Hood shooting to happen, this argument maintains.

There probably was some “political correctness” involved. I can think of no community more likely to withhold judgment of others than psychologists and psychiatrists, who are privy to the strange and dangerous thoughts of their patients day after day after day.

Note again the full range of relevant evidence, though: Thousands of times daily across the country, mental health professionals and social workers hear people’s violent thoughts—not just political rantings—which only rarely materialize into violence. In the military, it’s harder to guess at a number, but certainly thousands of times per year, service members discuss violence against other service members and political opinions that are odd or controversial, including Islamist political views. Very rarely—tragically when it does—this results in actual harm to men and women in uniform.

Nidal Hasan may have been fit for expulsion from the military. He may have been kept in by some form of political correctness or opportunistic bureaucratic burden-shifting once it was clear he was leaving Walter Reed for Fort Hood.

But only operation of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy allows the conclusion that his expulsion from the military would have averted the tragedy. Because it followed in time, the shooting appears to be a result of his continued military service or his looming deployment to Afghanistan. But it is not so obvious that his discharge from the service would have caused him to go limp, take a job at a convenience store, and live a happy life.

Had he been pushed out of the military, it’s quite plausible that his resentments would have grown, his contacts with jihadis would have increased, his planning would have been more strategic, and so on. It is simple assumption that expelling Hasan from the military would have averted so many deaths and collective national pain, just like it is simple assumption that it wouldn’t have.

As I discussed in a recent podcast, information always points to what happened next when you look at it after the fact. Data does not point so clearly to any conclusion when you observe it in real time along with all the other then-relevant data.

The Fort Hood shooting was a tragic and regrettable incident, but correctable security failure is not easily shown. The idea that the shooting was predictable is fueled by a small array of common perception problems and errors in logic. These errors have now inspired a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee later this week. The committee will try to find security lapses and seek after conditions in which ”no such attack ever occurs again.”

Politicians can promise the public that every tragedy can be averted, but soldiers know better than most that tragedy and loss do happen. At the memorial service for the Fort Hood victims, Lt. General Cone captured that reality, and the spirit in which we must accept it, saying to victim’s families, ”The Fort Hood community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

K-12 Education Tax Credits Save Millions

The latest fiscal impact review of Arizona’s scholarship tax credit programs estimates that they saved between $44 million and $186 million last year.  The programs offer individuals and businesses dollar-for-dollar tax credits if they make donations to non-profit K-12 scholarship-granting organizations. Those organizations, in turn, provide private school tuition assistance.

This is much higher than the savings estimate offered by the Arizona Republic last month, as the AZ Republic story linked above is quick to point out. I deal with the reasons for the discrepancy below, but first, here’s the crucial fact that the Republic has missed yet again: if the tax credit programs were significantly expanded, such as by raising the donation caps, the state would undeniably save many hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In fact, if the share of AZ schoolchildren participating in the program rose to just 40 percent, taxpayers would save billions of dollars a year – even if the size of the individual scholarships had to triple to achieve that result.

The Republic’s failure to report that inescapable and rather important fact does it no credit.

Now, on to the reason for the discrepancy in savings numbers. The body of the story hints at it: the Republic’s estimate assumed that private school enrollment would have been flat or increasing without the tax credit program, while the latest estimate does not.

As I pointed out at the time, the Republic’s assumption is demonstrably mistaken. Official AZ statistics show that enrollment in private schools peaked before the tax credit program had gotten under way, and had begun to decline as a result of rapid growth in the (tuition-free) charter school sector. So the Republic’s savings estimate was almost certainly too low.

As the author of the latest study admits, his assumptions about the true number of students who have migrated to private schools as a result of the program are speculative, but at least they are reasonable and not obviously erroneous, as the Republic’s were. In any event, the savings from a much larger migration to the private sector are not in doubt.

In Defense of Error-Laden Reporting

Tempted though I am to join the pile-on over the many inaccuracies in the data on the stimulus reporting site—including claims of jobs created in non-existent congressional districts—I think the White House actually makes a good point here: You can get something out fast, or you can get it out bug-free, but you usually can’t do both. And in fact, concerns about “data quality” at government agencies have often been a great enemy of transparency. It is, after all, embarrassing when your department puts out information that’s poorly formatted or riddled with typos or just plain wrong. But in practice, that means agencies sit on the data until someone gets around to fixing it, which is seldom a high priority. The insight behind open source is that the best debugger is a release: Ten-thousand coders actually using software are going to find and patch problems faster and better than any in-house team. And the same holds here: Get the data out, and dumb mistakes get spotted.

There are, to be sure, ways some of these errors could have been avoided. As David Freddoso points out, it would have been trivial to design the backend to only permit legitimate congressional districts to be entered.  But again, getting the site up quickly means they can count on critics to point out those sorts of possibilities for improvement. That said, Freddoso surely has a point when he argues that there’s no sane reason this kludgy beast of a site should have cost $18 million. Far better would have been to take the open-source logic to its conclusion and simply dump the raw data on a server in XML format, then let outside groups—maybe the Sunlight Foundation or Americans for Tax reform or just some clever lone hacker—figure out how best to mash it up and present it.

Talkin’ Libertarianism

In response to a question today, I found a C-SPAN appearance from 2006 on their website. Host Steve Scully was teaching a class on “Issues in Media and Public Policy” with students at the Cable Center’s Distance Learning Studio in Denver. He asked me to join him for a discussion of libertarianism and public policy. For about an hour and 20 minutes I answered questions posed by both Scully and the students. Video of the event can be found on C-SPAN’s website.

Tuesday Links

  • In the past eight months, the unemployment rate has jumped from 7.2 percent to 10.2 percent. Here’s why.
  • Three trillion reasons to hope the Senate is not as fiscally reckless as their counterparts in the House on health care reform.
  • Obama a federalist? Not quite: “Not yet a year into his administration, Obama’s record on 10th Amendment issues is already clear: He’ll let the states have their way when their policies please blue team sensibilities and he’ll call in the feds when they don’t.” More here.
  • It’s time to get immigration reform right: “Republican leaders need to liberate themselves from the Lou Dobbs minority within their own ranks that will oppose any legalization. Democratic leaders need to face down their labor-union constituency that opposes any workable temporary-visa program. Working together, President Obama and a bipartisan majority in Congress can seize the current opportunity to reform the immigration system and finally fix the problem of illegal immigration.”