201612

December 31, 2016 1:08PM

Why Washington Still Doesn’t Really Debate Grand Strategy

Former colleague and flourishing restaurateur Justin Logan and I have an essay in the current edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly: Why Washington Doesn’t Debate Grand Strategy. For now, you can read it for free.

Our argument is that defense policy analysis here is mostly in the grips of what we call an operational mindset, which accepts the existing policy goals and evaluates the means of achieving them—building a better mousetrap rather than asking whether a mousetrap is worth building. In the essay, we describe both the demand for and supply of analysis about grand strategy, which means a theory about how states create security for themselves.

We argue that there’s little demand for such analysis in Washington because of a near consensus in the foreign policy establishment in favor of the grand strategy of primacy, which is sometimes called “liberal hegemony” or even “deep engagement.” We discuss the limits and cause of that consensus. It comes, we argue, mostly from the historical growth of U.S. wealth and military power. We reject two alternatives sources, democratic preferences and inherent intellectual superiority, by noting that neither the public nor academics are nearly as fond of primacy as foreign policy thinkers in Washington.

Turning to supply, we explain why defense analysts, including those think tanks, respond to that demand, or really its absence, by focusing on operational questions, in contrast to academics, who devote more scrutiny to strategic questions. We describe the various incentives that encourage analysts to serve power. But unlike some who see the problem similarly, we deny that the solution lies in protecting defense analysis from political interests:

A standard reaction to this notion that politics often wants science to serve rather than guide it is to propose emancipation, schemes to liberate analysis from political influence. That means keeping campuses and think tanks free of political ambition and government funds or somehow protecting “the policy process” from “self-interested individuals and groups.” But it is neither possible nor desirable to purge policy debates of self-interest. Washington’s marketplace of policy ideas is flawed—but democratic. Were it possible to purge it of self-interest, the market would be barren and silent but for the few failing merchants proudly disdainful of customers that never arrive. Think tanks totally divorced from political interests would wither or die, leaving their job to entities that respond to political demand. The solution to bad policy is better politics, meaning more productive conflict that demands new ideas, not quixotic attempts to empower Platonic guardians by quieting interested parties.

But what about Trump, you might be asking? Doesn’t he defy the foreign policy establishment in his disdain for allies, musings about nuclear proliferation, and affection or Russia, and thus generate demand for the debate we say is lacking? I plan to thoroughly answer that question in a coming essay. For now, I have two brief responses.

First, as I discussed recently in War on the Rocks, Trump will likely deviate less from establishment thinking than many expect. In fact, his appointments suggest he’ll govern like a hawkish Republican, with some tics. Time will tell, of course.

Second, the essay considers the possibility of a president that bucks the primacy consensus, though not as much as it should have, in retrospect. That’s one function of the wimpy modifiers throughout that dilute the strength of its claims. I even wanted to drop a “really” or “much” in front of “debate” in the title, as I’ve done here, but got overruled. More importantly, we note there that public opinion allows for the election of leaders that buck the consensus, and we observe its strength in the bipartisan attacks on Trump for his foreign policy heresies during the campaign. The incoming administration offers a strong test of the operational mindset, at least.

December 30, 2016 12:41PM

How Ready Is Ready Enough?

The incoming Trump administration and the Congressional majority plan a push to repeal federal spending caps in order to boost military spending. A key talking point for this push claims that the Obama administration’s anemic military spending has caused a “readiness crisis,” where the U.S. military lacks the men, weapons, and funds to do its job. On the campaign trail, or Hannity, the claim became that the Obama is “gutting the military.” The president-elect typically went further, calling the U.S. military a “disaster” and in “shambles.”

In a recent presentation, embedded below, I raised three problems with these claims. One is that military spending remains high. The recent drawdown cut military spending by more twenty percent in real terms, but it came after buildup of nearly fifty percent. It’s now around Cold War peaks, in real terms.

Second, the military is shrinking partly because of its heightened quality. Rising personnel costs reflect the heightened professionalization of American troops. Similarly, U.S. weapons systems have grown deadlier, more complex, and costlier to maintain. The net result is forces are fewer but substantially more capable than previously possible.

Here I’ll focus on the third problem with complaints of a readiness crisis, which is that they’re mostly complaints about other issues. Overall, U.S. military readiness is alright, better when it comes to fighting current wars. Complaints about readiness mostly accompany requests for higher military spending. What readiness shortfalls exist could be solved without increasing the existing Pentagon budget. Those that complain the loudest about readiness, like the majority of the House Armed Services Committee, could improve it through reallocation, but they prefer to hype the crisis as a way to push for a higher total budget and stave off sacrifices

In the U.S. military, readiness generally refers to “the ability of forces to perform the missions and tasks assigned to them,” as Todd Harrison puts it. That metric depends on variables like whether units are adequately manned, the quality of training, equipment condition, and overall morale. The Pentagon tracks readiness through two internal tracking systems and classified reports to Congress.

With the exception of some military leaders, those complaining of a readiness crisis rarely mention these scorecards. Pentagon insiders and outside analysts largely agree that official readiness ratings are a poor guide for actual performance of military missions, especially in combat. Various unmeasured factors, like enemy capabilities, impact how those missions go. Questions of the military balance thus invade real readiness discussions. The vagueness and variability of readiness means that, as Brad Carson and Morgan Plummer note, debates occur without a shared definition, and the sides talk past each other.

For example, last summer, in two articles, David Petraeus and the Michael O’Hanlon attacked the idea of a readiness crisis by arguing that U.S. military forces remain well-trained and equipped for the fights they face. They note that readiness is far from perfect, especially in areas like Marine Corps aviation, but that ships and planes are mostly well-operated, and in good shape, especially compared to possible enemies. The torrent of responses chose to focus on other things: complaining that spending should be higher, worrying that preparation for future wars should be better, in some instances even acknowledging the absence of a readiness crisis before discussing various shortfalls.

Likewise, the service chiefs, whose cries about the dangers of sequestration (by which they mean budgets restrained by spending caps that Congress has annually increased and augmented with alleged war funds) inflame the “gutting the military” crowd, avoid the word “crisis” when pressed. They highlight areas of future risk or capabilities they would like, note problem areas, request more money, and mostly reject politicians’ contentions that U.S. forces are broken and weak.

To the extent that there is a readiness problem, it is partly the fault of those that most lament it: the Armed Services Committees, especially in the House, which has held numerous hearings on the topic. Its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, recently blamed the Obama administration for a helicopter crash in Hawaii that killed twelve Marines. He argued that because the administration was “playing political games” and limiting operational funds needed for flight training, it bore responsibility for the crash.

It’s true that investigators believe that low readiness in terms of training and morale helped cause the crash. But Thornberry is himself guilty of using readiness as a political game. Though his committee has less say than appropriators, it could push to shift funds into the operations and maintenance accounts that fund readiness at the expense of some acquisition spending. However, acquisition is generally of greater interest to Congressmen because the money goes to their local production facilities and creates jobs in their districts. Thornberry prefers to keep the readiness issue as a lever to push for higher military spending. Meanwhile, the administration has tended to push for operations and maintenance funding at some cost to acquisition.

A review of the debate about the readiness crisis reveals not only that there’s little real crisis, but also that’s there’s no real debate about it. The debate is actually a vehicle for other issues, like how much we ought to spend and what we ought to do to meet threats. Readiness has become a kind of synonym for a strong defense—a concept so capacious and positive that everyone uses it to mean what they want. It’s best to discard the term and recognize that military spending choices are largely about what you want to be ready for, not how ready you are for everything.

December 30, 2016 11:11AM

You Ought to Have a Look: Panic Among Alarmists

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

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As the time towards Trump’s inauguration closes, panic mounts in the climate change-agenda community as evinced by their hyperventilation about what a Trump Administration might unleash on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. This includes ventilation about blocking access to climate data, data manipulation, investigating climate scientists, squashing dissent, selective science, end runs around Congressional intent, etc...sort of like a catalog of what they have been doing since climate change went prime time in 1988.

Many of these bloviations are completely unfounded—for example, a particular favorite of the press during recent weeks has been that “Scientists [are] Rac[ing] To Preserve Climate Change Data Before Trump Takes Office.” This is nonsense—despite the hand-wringing and (faux) concern raised by some folks. And while we, like everyone else should be, are opposed to deleting government datasets (paid for with our tax dollars), there is simply no evidence that such an action is in the works or even being contemplated.

Many of the other fears are overblown as well, but there are, in fact, some things that should bother climate campaigners (and no one else). These include efforts to retract the Clean Power Plan, to eliminate the use of the social cost of carbon as currently constituted in federal cost/benefit analyses, and acknowledgement the current generation of climate models has no utility with regard to policy.

Together these actions would go a long way to dismantling much of the overreaction inherent in Obama’s Climate Action Plan and also form a strong case for reversing the EPA’s “endangerment finding” for carbon dioxide. Should any/all of this come to pass, the climate campaigners will go bonkers, while the rest of us will be freed from burdensome regulations and have greater economic ability to address/adapt to what climate changes may come our way.

Here’s what’s afoot. First is well-designed dismantling of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, described in a letter sent to Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell (and copied to Myron Ebell, head of Trump’s EPA transition team), by a coalition of 24 state Attorneys General. It builds upon their belief that the Clean Power Plan goes far beyond what is allowed under the Clean Air Act and that it unlawfully commands states to “fundamentally alter electricity generation in their States by shifting from existing fossil-fueled power plants to other methods of generation preferred by EPA.”

Basically, the plan that they’d like to see President Trump put into motion starts with an immediate executive order making it clear that “it is the Administration's view that the Rule is unlawful and that EPA lacks authority to enforce it.” From there, they’d like the Trump Administration to work closely with the States on ways to withdraw the rule and with Congress to make sure that no such rule gets promulgated in the future, i.e., that any “legislation should recognize the rights of States to develop their own energy strategies, so that energy can be generated in a cost effective and environmentally responsible manner.”

This course of action sounds a lot like the strategy that David Rivkin Jr. and Cato Adjunct Scholar Andrew Grossman laid out in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal two weeks after Trump was elected. It will be good to see their sound advice taken to heart and put into action.

Next up are signs that federal government’s love affair with the social cost of carbon is going to come to an abrupt and welcome end. The social cost of carbon, or SCC, is the Obama Administration’s determination of the monetary cost (tallied as the modelled damages resulting from climate changes that occurs between now and the year 2300) from every new ton of carbon dioxide that is emitted by human activities. Yes, not only does this sound ludicrous, but you can come up with nearly any number you want (including negative values—which indicate a net benefit from carbon dioxide emissions) based on how you treat certain parameters—like the future discount rate, the climate sensitivity, global vs. domestic impacts, the damage functions, adaptations, etc. Currently, in 2015 dollars, the Obama Administration’s SCC is about $40/ton. Alternative calculations produce numbers that range from near zero to several hundreds of dollars—basically, anybody’s guess.

But, while you may think that this huge uncertainty would pretty much render reliance on the SCC in federal rulemaking moot—you’d be wrong. In fact, just the opposite is the case—the Obama Administration requires the inclusion of its determination of the SCC in all cost/benefits analyses for federal decision-making that may result carbon dioxide emissions (which is nearly everything).

We have been strongly pushing back against this practice for several years now through all avenues available to us, and it now seems that the Trump Administration will take much of what we have written into consideration.

A recent article in Bloomberg explores many of the problems with the SCC and the avenues that the new Administration would have to defang the SCC. You ought to have a look.

And to this, we add an avenue that was not explored in the Bloomberg article, but which was discussed in a recent Vox article about the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). According to Jody Freeman, a former climate advisor to President Obama:

OIRA is the location in the White House where they oversee agency rulemaking. This office oversees the methodology that agencies use to count up costs and benefits for new rules. That can be changed with the stroke of a pen. And it sounds weedy, but it’s the kind of thing that can make it harder to issue new regulations.

So for instance, right now the Obama administration currently uses a “global social cost of carbon” for its climate rules — that means if you have any rule that reduces greenhouse gases, the benefits counted for that rule include the [climate] benefits globally. You could imagine a Trump OIRA saying, “We don’t want to do that anymore. We’re not going to count the social cost of carbon as a benefit.” That changes the calculus for which rules are cost-beneficial.

This seems intriguing—we really ought to have more of a look!

And finally, the grand prize of all would be overturning the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.” From this “endangerment finding” stems the EPA’s imperative to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and unleashes all manner of regulations large and small. 

There are many approaches that a Trump Administration can take. They could convince Congress to act by explicitly stating that regulating carbon dioxide is not within the purview of the Clean Air Act. Alternatively, the EPA could overturn its own endangerment finding, which, according to the Supreme Court, compels the agency to regulate carbon dioxide.

The EPA has just been handed a loaded gun to accomplish just that.

It is all laid out in a forthcoming paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that was released online in August. The paper “The art and science of climate model tuning” is written by Frederic Hourdin and 15 co-authors. It details the phenomenal amount of adjustment that has been applied to the GCMs in order to get them to simulate the 20th Century or just the present climate. 

Recently, it was summarized by Paul Voosen in Science, who said the modelers have heretofore have clammed up about all of this, fearing when it became public, “skeptics” would have a field day. Specifically, he wrote this doozey:

For years, climate scientists had been mum in public about their “secret sauce”: What happened in the models stayed in the models. The taboo reflected fears that climate contrarians would use the practice of tuning to seed doubt about models—and, by extension, the reality of human driven warming.

Yes, in fact, we will. And we should, with the caveat that carbon dioxide does cause some warming, but far, far less than what is in these models.

What comes out of the paper is that each fiddling of the models—which includes adjusting everything from the earth’s reflectivity to the mixing of heat in the ocean—gives a different answer for how much the earth will warm for doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

This figure, known as the “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS) is the bottom line when it comes to climate change. If it can be moved to any value depending upon the “tuning” of the model, then it is the modeler and not the physics that decides this critical number. Hourdin et al. put it rather artfully when they said, that it’s important when fiddling with the models to keep the ECS within an “anticipated acceptable range.”

What’s “acceptable” is therefore entirely subjective and, outside of ridiculous values that don’t comport with reality (such as one that would imply a greenhouse runaway), we are now regulating carbon dioxide by arbitrary caprice. That knowledge dooms EPA’s Endangerment Finding.

The Endangerment Finding is itself based upon a massive compendium, EPA’s “Technical Support Document,” which is a literature review of the causes and effects of global warming based, of course, on the GCMs. There is nothing to keep the EPA from modifying that document with this new (and universal) finding, and concluding that the technical support for an Endangerment Finding no longer exists.

Our greener friends will take that to court, to absolutely no avail. Courts do not intervene over the scientific determinations of agencies, a doctrine called “Chevron Deference” to their technical expertise. This was originally decided in the 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council

Georgia Tech atmospheric scientist Judy Curry wrote this about the Hourdin paper:

“If ever in your life you are to read one paper on climate modeling, this is the paper that you should read. Besides being a very important paper, it is very well written and readable by a non-specialist audience.”

We agree completely.

December 29, 2016 5:26PM

Should Think Tanks Collaborate (More)?

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin has a solution for the fake news epidemic: better collaboration among think tanks. "In an era of 'fake news,' with a president-elect who regularly lies and partisan hacks who dispute that there are such things as 'facts,' think tanks seem more important than ever," Rubin wrote.

Among her specific recommendations for improving the quality and salience of think tanks's ouput, Rubin would like to see more efforts to dispel false rumors, and confirm the accurate ones. For example, "a joint project confirming Russian attempts to interfere with our and our allies’ elections." 

She also suggests that "reducing think tank partisanship and involving those outside the Beltway might go a long way toward finding legislative consensus and stimulating civil debate."

But one of her other suggestions particularly caught my eye: civil debate and respectful disagreement.

Think tanks like to put on programs featuring a parade of essentially like-minded experts. There is much more to be gained by, say, the Cato Institute inviting professional colleagues from, say, the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss American support for democratic values in the world. If nothing else, inculcating an atmosphere of convivial debate may spread to pundits, lawmakers, activists and voters themselves. 

As it happens, Cato did host a colleague from the Council on Foreign Relations just a few weeks ago, to discuss a recent paper on North Korea. And I think that we generally do a pretty good job of assembling panels of speakers who are not all singing from the same playbook, but who instead disagree with one another, from time to time, and usually in a civil and respectful way. In short, we already collaborate quite a bit.

But I decided to test my assumptions. With the help of my able assistant James Knupp, I compiled a list of the 16 public events hosted and organized by the defense and foreign policy department in 2016. All but one included participants from institutions other than Cato, a total of 42 speakers. Of these, nearly 60 percent (25) are not primarily affiliated with a think tank, but rather work as full-time professors at a major research university. This is consistent with Rubin's suggestion that DC think tanks reach beyond the Beltway, and it reflects Cato's ongoing commitment to expand outreach between academia and the policy community. This effort includes our visiting fellows program, and the publication of papers by non-Cato scholars in the academy (e.g. here and here). 


Of the 17 speakers from think tanks, many major institutions were represented, including Brookings (3 times); and CNAS, CSIS, and New America (2 times, each); as well as the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, Hoover, RAND, and USIP.

And, as it happens, we're continuing this tradition into the new year. Our first foreign policy event of 2017, on January 17th, features, among others, Kathleen Hicks from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and will be moderated by the Post’s own Karen DeYoung. I will be thrilled if Rubin attends. If she does, she will see that we value a frank discussion of ideas, ones that do not fit within neatly partisan labels.

The open question arising from Rubin's suggestion for greater collaboration among think tanks is whether that will actually cause people to change their minds, especially about facts that challenge preconceived notions, or that are uncomfortable. But, despite what I've read about cognitive shortcuts (e.g. confirmation bias), and of experts' collective inability to influence major events (the 2016 presidential election being merely the latest case in point), I'm willing to give it a try. So I look forward to speaking at many think tanks around town in 2017, just as I'm sure we'll continue to welcome their experts here.

December 29, 2016 11:04AM

Is 2016 Over Yet?

By the end of the year, 2016 had accrued a list of international crises, celebrity deaths and electoral shenanigans so long that a spate of articles appeared questioning whether it was the worst year ever, while social media appeared to be primarily filled with people asking “Is 2016 over yet?” But at least in the realm of foreign policy, there’s little hope that 2017 will bring much respite.  

It would, of course, take an extraordinarily narrow view of history to argue that 2016 was really the worst year on record. That would require one to overlook 1942-3, the height of Second World War barbarity, or 1914, the year when the “war to end all wars” began. 1968 wasn’t that great, either, bringing us the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the crushing of the Prague Spring, Vietnam War massacres, and a plane accident involving four nuclear bombs.  Or if you want to go back further in history, it’s pretty hard to ignore 1347, the year the Black Death reached Europe.

But 2016 did present an impressive series of foreign policy and political disasters, ranging from a coup in Turkey to Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process to terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Russian and Syrian government troops finally succeeded in crushing opposition in Aleppo at massive humanitarian cost. And crises that in any other year would have been front page news – like North Korean missile tests or worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were sidelined in favor of more urgent crises.

2016 also saw a global surge in populism, with the election of bluntly anti-establishment politicians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, and the surprising victory of pro-Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union.  Indeed, one of the few positive foreign policy events of the year – Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC, ending a 50-year conflict – was almost derailed when voters rejected the deal at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that 2017 will substantially improve matters. Many of this year’s crises will in fact carry over into next year: the war in Syria continues apace, Brexit negotiations are ongoing, and North Korea is likely to continue its saber rattling. Worse, some of this year’s less visible crises have the potential to deteriorate further, like the war in Yemen or Venezuela’s economic and social collapse.

More broadly, the overarching trends that defined much of the foreign policy landscape in 2016 look set to continue for the foreseeable future. Populism is likely to impact next year’s key European elections. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front looks likely to do well, as does Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland. In the Netherlands, anti-EU sentiment has some speculating that March’s election could precipitate a ‘Nexit’ from the EU.    

The complexity of this year’s crises – and the broader shift towards a more multipolar international system – also looks set to continue. This will create challenges for U.S. policymakers, who may have to seek cooperation with states like Russia or China on key issues at the same time as opposing them on others. And authoritarian backsliding by countries within U.S. alliances, most notably Turkey, raises key questions about what U.S. security guarantees in some areas actually achieve.

Still, as one cliché points out: “Prediction is hard, especially the future.” This pessimistic view of foreign policy in 2017 may well turn out be inaccurate. It simply seems unlikely given the growing global trends which precipitated many of this year’s big foreign policy surprises. Pretty soon, we may be asking if 2017 is over yet. 

December 28, 2016 7:37PM

Navy Corruption Scandal

The Washington Post has published another report on the Glenn Defense Navy scandal. For more than a decade, the head of Glenn Defense, Leonard Glenn Francis, cozied up to Navy leaders in the Pacific to win lucrative contracts for resupplying ships. He cashed in on overpriced contracts and fraudulent invoices, and he had numerous moles inside the Navy to ensure his continued enrichment.

Francis wined and dined Navy officers, providing them with gifts, prostitutes, and other favors to get their help and protection. The episode is appalling in so many ways, and it has disturbing implications: If Navy officers were so easily seduced by this Singapore con artist, are leaders in other military and intelligence services just as vulnerable to old-fashioned, low-tech bribes?

Here are some highlights from the Post:

The Navy allowed the worst corruption scandal in its history to fester for several years by dismissing a flood of evidence that the rotund Asian defense contractor was cheating the service out of millions of dollars and bribing officers with booze, sex and lavish dinners, newly released ­documents show.

The Singapore-based contractor, Leonard Glenn Francis, found it especially easy to outwit the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the renowned law enforcement agency that has inspired one of the longest-running cop shows on television.

Starting in 2006, in response to a multitude of fraud complaints, NCIS opened 27 separate investigations into Francis’s company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia. In each of those instances, however, NCIS closed the case after failing to dig up sufficient evidence to take action against the firm, according to hundreds of pages of law enforcement records ­obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

Known as Fat Leonard for his 350-pound physique, Francis held lucrative contracts to resupply U.S. warships and submarines in ports throughout Asia. He was also legendary within the Navy for throwing hedonistic parties, often with prostitutes, to entertain sailors.

Other Navy documents obtained by The Post show that staffers at U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters were so worried about the potential for trouble that they drafted a new ethics policy to discourage Navy personnel from accepting favors from Francis. But their effort was blocked for more than two years by admirals who were friendly with the contractor, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Despite rising signs of widespread fraud, the Navy kept awarding business to Francis’s company. In 2011, Glenn Defense won deals valued at $200 million to service U.S. vessels at ports stretching from the Russian Far East to Australia.

Besides Francis, 12 people — including an admiral and nine other Navy personnel — have pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Five other defendants still face charges.

Justice Department officials say there is no end in sight to the investigation and that 200 people have fallen under scrutiny. Among them are about 30 current or retired admirals, according to Navy ­officials.

… In exchange for paid sex with prostitutes, cash and luxury vacations, Francis’s informants fed him a near-daily diet of classified material and inside information that enabled him to keep gouging the Navy and outfox his pursuers for years, according to court records.

A prior Washington Post story on the scandal is here.

A study examining federal bureaucratic failure is here.

December 28, 2016 4:50PM

Power Arrangements in Identity Systems

Since the launch of the Sovrin Foundation, Phil Windley has been blogging a lot (no, reallya lot and more, more, more, more, and more) about how self-sovereign identity works and can be used. His most interesting and accessible post for a liberty-minded identity-layperson might be "On Sovereignty," in which he briefly lays out what it means to have a "self-sovereign" identity.

Sovereignty over your identity doesn't mean having complete control over information about yourself, but it puts you in a peer relationship with others, including the larger organizations we deal with, such as governments. "The beauty of sovereignty," Phil emphasizes, is the "balance of power that leads to negotiations about the nature of the relationships between various entities in the system." I want to expand on this notion that there are power arrangements in identity systems.

In a centralized identity system, the identity provider (such as your Department of Motor Vehicles) determines whether you can assert information and what you can assert. Centralized systems also often share information about you, or facilitate such sharing, whether you want them to or not. Implementation of the REAL ID Act would essentially move these powers from state governments to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A self-sovereign identity system, on the other hand, gives you power to assert information about yourself, which others may accept or reject. It also better positions you to decline to share information about yourself. Those powers are important.

"Power" is an elusive concept. We're more familiar with talking about power in terms of political and legal arrangements, such as how the Constitution gives certain powers to the U.S. federal government or denies all U.S. governments other powers. But absent these rules, "pre-political" power is simply the ability to do something or act in a particular way, or the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. Power comes down to what resources you can bring to bear in going after what you want.

To illustrate pre-political power arrangements, look at physical power in the "state of nature." If a tall, muscular man meets a short, skinny man on a trail in a desolate forest, the arrangement of power between the two is pretty clear: the bigger man has more ability to use force, so he can take things from the smaller man, do him in, or whatever he pleases. Give the skinny man a gun, though, and the power allocation reverses. The gun's capacity to defeat human musculature gives the small man more power to defend himself, to take from the larger man, or to do the larger man in. Physics and technology allocate power before legal rules come into play.

Pre-political power arrangements seem to strongly influence what political and legal rules can achieve. It's taken hundreds of years to bring the power of physical force possessed by feudal lords and governments relatively under control. This is probably because it's pretty great to have power, and pretty awful to lose it.

It follows from all this that liberty can be advanced not just by fettering governments' powers, but by allocating power more evenly in the first place. There aren't going to be "do-overs" about how physical arrangements allocate power, but the ways that information arrangements allocate power have yet to gel. Balanced power in identity and information systems are important to pursue now.

Instead of the large man and the small man, imagine two scenarios where a government agent meets a local resident on that same trail. It's a post-political world, so the government agent has to live within decent rules, but there can be very different allocations of power based on information arrangements.

In the first scenario, the government agent knows nothing more than what he sees: an ordinary resident making her way up the path. Without information to justify anything else, he bids the resident good day and they pass one another.

In the second scenario, the government agent can identify the resident and pull up records about her. Instead of sharing brief courtesies, the government agent notes debts owed on some parking tickets and a tax bill in arrears. With information about where the resident and her friends live, and data about them, the agent might infer that the resident is on her way to visit people with criminal histories. Financial details in hand, the government agent finds that the quality of clothing and jewelry she wears suggests untaxed or illicit profits on her person. In these ways or countless others, identity and biography empowers the government agent to interfere with the life of the hapless local resident by questioning, detaining, or arresting her.

Think also of the power imbalance when the government can decide when to allow someone to identify him- or herself and when to deny it. In the not-too-distant future, identity systems will all be digital and electronic. This means your centralized identity provider, the DMV, will be able to shut off recognition of identities that have unpaid parking tickets, tax liabilities, or other defects in the eyes of official policy.

Many people like this power when used to deny licenses to illegal immigrants today, but the use of the power is likely to broaden. Linking the vote to a national ID, as the Carter-Baker Commission proposed some years ago, could be one direction. Conditioning access to health care, financial services, housing, and more on the showing of government-issued ID have all been raised seriously in recent years. The power held by identity providers—now mostly governments—are only going to grow.

The solution is to disperse that power—not through rules but through technical infrastructure design. Let people assert their own identities without requiring it to be done through intermediaries, governmental or otherwise. There is plenty of capacity in a distributed identity system to prove the facts that make identities reliable, even while they minimize the data that needs to be shared in doing so.

The Sovrin Foundation has a good library of documents describing how they would do this, using a public, permissioned blockchain. And for those who are just learning the importance of identity—say, through this blog post—one entry-point to the basic concepts might be my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.