Archives: 03/2010

Food Stamps on Campus

Food stamp usage is on an upsurge as a result of the economic downturn and liberalized eligibility. Thanks to some good journalistic work from Aleksandra Kulczuga of the Daily Caller, we’re getting a better picture of how government dependency is spreading to a new generation.

Kulczuga reports that college students are increasingly going on the dole thanks to encouragement from college officials and poverty organizations dedicated to fomenting government dependency.

From the article:

Adam Sylvain, a sophomore at Virginia’s George Mason University, recounted a recent conversation with friends in his dorm room. “My roommate told me he applied for food stamps, and they told him he qualified for $200 a month in benefits,” Sylvain said. “He’s here on scholarship and he saves over $5,000 each summer in cash.”

“A few of our other friends who were in the room also said if there were able to, they would get food stamps … They think that if they’re eligible it’s the government’s fault, so they might as well,” Sylvain said.

Students at GMU can buy a meal plan for $1,275 that provides 10 meals a week for the semester — that’s $71 a week.

When I was in college, my friends and I worked during the school year and through the summer to fund our expenses. My father worked multiple jobs to pay his way through college while supporting a young wife. He grew up in a family headed by a single mother that relied on extended family and charities to help them through tough times. He may have been eligible for food stamps in college, but he would have never taken a government handout.

Today’s generation seems to be different. This Salon article tells of unemployed college grads using food stamps to purchase organic food at high-end grocers like Whole Foods.

From the article:

At Magida’s brick row house in Baltimore, she and Mak minced garlic while observing that one of the upsides of unemployment was having plenty of time to cook elaborate meals, and that among their friends, they had let go of any bad feelings about how their food was procured.

“It’s not a thing people feel ashamed of, at least not around here,” said Mak. “It feels like a necessity right now.”

Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.

Remember that many of these students probably had their college educations subsidized by the government as well.

“You’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better…”

“…a little better all the time.”

Some school choice supporters and philanthropists began to suffer burnout a few years ago, disappointed that private school choice programs had not yet scaled up massively a decade-and-a-half after the first modern program was launched in Milwaukee. That disappointment is likely to give way in the coming years to new hope, and looking back a generation from now, 2010 may well be seen as a turning point in the history of educational freedom.

Last week, a private school choice bill sponsored by a Democrat (the Rev. James Meeks), passed the Democratic-controlled Illinois Senate. Even if this particular bill isn’t enacted into law, the impact of its passage in the Senate will reverberate around the country. Also in the past week, the Florida Senate passed a major expansion of its education tax credit program that would allow that program to expand every year in which demand for it has grown. Should current trends continue, that would allow it to become the biggest private school choice program in the country in a matter of years. It, too, was defended on the Senate floor by African American Democrats. And just a few weeks before that, a Democratic filmmaker saw his pro-school-choice education documentary picked up by Paramount Pictures.

It’s not even April yet!

2010 is shaping up to be a very good year indeed.

Internet Privacy Law Needs an Upgrade

Imagine for a moment that all your computing devices had to run on code that had been written in 1986. Your smartphone is, alas, entirely out of luck, but your laptop or desktop computer might be able to get online using a dial-up modem. But you’d better be happy with a command-line interface to services like e-mail, Usenet, and Telnet, because the only “Web browsers” anyone’s heard of in 1986 are entomologists. Cloud computing? Location based services? Social networking? No can do, though you can still get into a raging debate about the relative merits of Macs and PCs.

When it comes to federal privacy law, alas, we are running on code written in 1986: The Elecronic Communications Privacy Act, a statute that’s not only ludicrously out of date, but so notoriously convoluted and unclear that even legal experts routinely lament the “mess” of electronic privacy law. Scholar Orin Kerr has called it “famously complex, if not entirely impenetrable.” Part of the problem, to be sure, lies with the courts.  It is scandalous that in 2010, we don’t even have a definitive ruling on whether or when the Fourth Amendment requires the government to get a search warrant to read e-mails stored on a server. But the ECPA statute, meant to fill the gap left by the courts, reads like the rules of James T. Kirk’s fictional card game Fizzbin.

Suppose the police want to read your e-mail. To come into your home and look through your computer, of course, they’d need a full Fourth Amendment search warrant based on probable cause. If they want to intercept the e-mail in transit, they have to go still further and meet the “super-warrant” standards of the Wiretap Act. Once it lands on your Internet Service Provider’s server, a regular search warrant is once again the standard—assuming your ISP is providing access “to the public.” If it’s a more closed network like your work account, your employer is permitted to voluntarily hand it over. But if you read the e-mail, or leave it on the server for more than 180 days, then suddenly your ISP has become a “remote computing service” provider rather than an “electronic communications service provider” vis a vis that e-mail. So instead of a probable cause warrant, police can get a 2703(d) order based on “specific and articulable facts” showing the information is “relevant and material” to an investigation—a much lower standard—provided they notify you. Except they can ask a judge to delay notification if they think that would impede the investigation. Oh, unless your ISP is in the Ninth Circuit, where opened e-mails still get the higher level of protection until they’ve “expired in the normal course,” whatever that means.

That’s for e-mail contents.  But maybe they don’t actually need to read your e-mail; maybe they just want some “metadata”—the equivalent of scanning the envelopes of physical letters—to see if your online activity is suspicious enough to warrant a closer look.  Well, then they can get what’s called a pen/trap order based on a mere certification to a judge of “relevance” to capture that information in realtime, but without having to provide any of those “specific and articulable facts.” Unless it’s information that would reveal your location—maybe because you’re e-mailing from your smartphone—in which case, well, the law doesn’t really say, but the Justice Department thinks a pen/trap order plus one of those 2703(d) orders will do, unless it’s really specific location information, at which point they get a warrant. If they want to get those records after the fact, it’s one of those 2703(d) orders—again, unless a non-public provider like your school or employer wants to volunteer them. Oh, unless it’s a counterterror investigation, and the FBI thinks your records might be “relevant” somehow, in which case they can get them with a National Security letter, without getting a judge involved at all.

Dizzy yet? Well, a movement launched today with the aim of dragging our electronic privacy law, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century: The Digital Due Process Coalition.  They’re pushing for a streamlined law that provides clear and consistent protection for sensitive information—the kind of common sense rules you’d have thought would already be in place.  If the government wants to read the contents of your letters, they should need a search warrant—regardless of the phase of the moon when an e-mail is acquired. If they want to track your location, they should need a warrant. And all that “metadata” can be pretty revealing in the digital age—maybe some stricter oversight is in order before they start vacuuming up all our IP logs.

Reforms like these are way overdue. You wouldn’t trust your most sensitive data to software code that hadn’t gone a few years without a security patch. Why would you trust it to legal code that hasn’t had a major patch in over two decades?

Tuesday Links

Topics:

Cell Phones and Ingratitude

When I was a kid in the 1960s and we came back from a visit to my grandmother’s, my mother used to call my grandmother, let the phone ring twice, and then hang up. It was important for my grandmother to know that we’d arrived home safely, but long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to indulge in unnecessarily. When I entered Vanderbilt University in 1971, my parents had to decide whether to pay for a telephone in my dorm room. They decided to do so, but most of the thoroughly upper-middle-class students on my floor did not have phones. Phones cost real money back then. Then came the breakup of the AT&T monopoly in 1984. Phone technology and competitive service provision exploded. In 1982, Motorola produced the first portable mobile phone. It weighed about 2 pounds and cost $3995. Within a very few years they were much smaller, much cheaper, and selling like hotcakes.

Today there are some 4.6 billion mobile phones in the world, and counting, or about 67 per every 100 people in the world. The newer ones allow you to carry in your hand more computing power than the computers that put Apollo 11 on the moon.  You can cruise the internet, find your location with GPS, read books, send texts, pay bills, process credit cards, watch video, record video, stream video to the web, take and send photos – oh, and make phone calls from just about anywhere. Unimaginable just a few years ago.

And to celebrate this incredible achievement, Slate and the New America Foundation are holding a forum titled “Can You Hear Me Now? Why Your Cell Phone is So Terrible.”

This is an old story. Markets, property rights, and the rule of law provide a framework in which technology and prosperity soar, and some people can only complain. I was reading some of Deirdre McCloskey’s forthcoming book Bourgeois Dignity this week. She points out that the average person lived on the equivalent of $3 a day in 1800. Today there are six and a half times as many people, but the average person earns and consumes 10 times as much, far more than that in the most capitalist countries. And yet some people, most leftist intellectuals, continue to ignore what McCloskey calls “the gigantic gains from bourgeois dignity and liberty” and to denounce the markets, economic liberalization, and globalization that have liberated billions of people from eons of back-breaking labor.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of consumer reporting and analysis, which is an important part of a robust marketplace. Competition and consumer reporting both help to keep prices low and quality improving. And there’s plenty of room for criticism of cell phone pricing, contracting, and service. But when a discussion like this is held by a public policy research organization and a public-affairs magazine as part of a program on public policy, then it’s not just consumer advice. It is presumably a discussion of what the sluggish, coercive institution of government can do to improve – or more likely impede – a fabulously dynamic, constantly improving consumer-directed industry. And that usually ends in tears.

Maybe we should hold a forum titled “Can You Hear Me Now? And Watch Me on Video? And Read My Book on Your Handheld Device? And Check Your Blood Pressure and Glucose? How Markets, Innovation, and Entrepreneurs Have Taken Cell Phone Technology from Clunker to Computer in Barely a Generation.”

Bret Stephens’ Sophistry

Does Bret Stephens really want us to believe that our support for Israeli expansionism has nothing to do with Muslims’ perception of the United States?


The Roots of Muslim Rage?

According to his column in today’s Wall Street Journal, he does. The basic gist is as follows:

  1. Sayyid Qutb was a crucial theorist of Islamic resistance more than half a century ago;
  2. Qutb was revolted at what he saw (then!) as sexual licentiousness and general cultural looseness among Americans;
  3. Therefore, sexy American women including “Lady Gaga–or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe [and] Josephine Baker” have more to do with our terrorism problem than does our unswerving support for Israeli expansionism.

You can take this sort of argument in lots of different directions. Try this one: Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the first neoconservative, was a big racist. Lots of his support for American imperialism derived from the fact that he was a big racist. Therefore, the reason American neoconservatives like Bret Stephens support American imperialism is because they are big racists.

To be sure, there probably are neoconservatives who want to beat up on the Arabs because of racism. But it’s not fair to tar Stephens with that brush simply because he hews to an ideology that was influenced in crucial ways by big racists like TR.

Getting back to the substance of the piece, Stephens takes his argument all the way, writing that “to imagine that [Israeli] settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which there lies a universe of hatred.”  This armchair psychiatry formulation helpfully gets Stephens far away from the realm of falsifiability.

Dangerously, though, Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up.  This is, of course, not accurate.  Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.”  Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”  Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998.  The three big claims made against us in there were

  1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
  2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
  3. Our support for Israel.

There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed.  You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure.  I actually think both these arguments are good ones.  But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues? The answer that presents itself is that he is not an idiot and he thinks the three points he made will be most effective in recruiting people to the cause.

Once again, there’s a lot you can do with this, up to and including saying you don’t care what effect our policies may have on al Qaeda recruiting, continuing them is worth a lot to us so we’re going to do so.  And that’s fine.  But Stephens’ cute argumentation and burial of basic facts about these yahoos isn’t doing a service to the debate over what to do about them.

Similarly, Stephens could have looked for actual research on the topic.  For example, public opinion scholars Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike drew on six years of survey data in the Islamic world and concluded in 2008 that while “America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal,” “most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity.” Or look at the U.S. Defense Department’s reporting on the issue: “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” [.pdf]  Basically everybody who’s studied this question in any detail agrees with this general argument.

Stephens has a great pulpit on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page.  He should have more respect for his readers and more deference to the truth.

Update: Andrew Exum has more.

The Number of Congressional Staff Is the Real Problem

There’s been a bit of buzz about a recent story in Politico revealing a huge increase in the number of congressional staff receiving six-figure salaries.  Some of the details are eye-openers, including a 39 percent increase in the past four years in the number of staffers earning at least $163,358:

Nearly 2,000 House of Representatives staffers pulled down six-figure salaries in 2009, including 43 staffers who earned the maximum $172,500 — or more than three times the median U.S. household income. …But while these top earners are a small percentage of the overall congressional work force, their numbers are growing at a rapid rate under the Democratic Congress. The number of staffers earning within the upper 3 percent of House salaries — currently $163,358 or more — has increased by nearly 39 percent in the past four years, according to LegiStorm data. …“These are people who could be making a lot more money in the private sector, but they choose to work here,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly, who also makes $172,500. …There are approximately 10,000 House staffers, including district office workers, according to the chief administrative officer.

Even though I’m a former Hill staffer, I’m certainly not going to defend these salaries (especially since I was nowhere near the top of the pay structure!). But excessive pay is actually a secondary problem. The real issue is the explosion in the number of staff. The image below, taken from a 1993 congressional report, shows the increase in the number of staff for each member of the House of Representatives. This doesn’t include, incidentally, the increase in committee staff and the growth in auxiliary institutions such as the Congressional Budget Office (the folks who just told us that a giant new entitlement program would reduce red ink).

It’s a chicken-and-egg issue whether this bloated congressional staff structure is a result of bigger government, or whether it contributes to bigger government. In either case, it would be a good idea to go back to the number of staff – and size of government – we had in the past.