Tag: data

Three Lessons from the Increasingly Irrelevant Annual Wiretap Report

The 2011 Wiretap Report was released this weekend, providing an overview of how federal and state governments used wiretapping powers in criminal investigations. (Surveillance for intelligence purposes is covered in a separate, far less informative report.) There’s plenty of interesting detail, but here’s the bottom line:

After climbing 34 percent in 2010 the number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2011 deceased 14 percent. A total of 2,732 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2011, with 792 authorized by federal judges and 1,940 authorized by state judges…. Compared to the numbers approved during 2010 the number of applications reported as approved by federal judges declined 34 percent in 2011, and the number of applications approved by state judges fell 2 percent. The reduction in wiretaps resulted primarily from a drop in applications for narcotics.

So is the government really spying on us less? Is the drug war cooling off? Well, no, that’s lesson number one: Government surveillance is now almost entirely off the books.

The trouble, as Andy Greenberg of Forbes explains, is that we’ve got analog reporting requirements in a digital age. The courts have to keep a tally of how often they approve traditional intercepts that are primarily used to pick up realtime phone conversationse—96 percent of all wiretap orders. But phone conversations represent an ever-dwindling proportion of modern communication, and police almost never use a traditional wiretap order to pick up digital conversations in realtime. Why would they? Realtime wiretap orders require jumping all sorts of legal hurdles that don’t apply to court orders for stored data, which is more convenient anyway, since it enables investigators to get a whole array of data, often spanning weeks or month, all at once. But nobody is required to compile data on those types of information requests, even though they’re often at least as intrusive as traditional wiretaps.

From what information we do have, however, it seems clear that phone taps are small beer compared to other forms of modern surveillance. As Greenberg notes, Verizon reported fielding more than 88,000 requests for data in 2006 alone. These would have ranged from traditional wiretaps, to demands for stored text messages and photos, to “pen registers” revealing a target’s calling patterns, to location tracking orders, to simple requests for a subscriber’s address or billing information. Google, which is virtually unique among major Internet services in voluntarily disclosing this sort of information, fielded 12,271 government requests for data, and complied with 11,412 of them. In other words, just one large company reports far more demands for user information than all the wiretaps issued last year combined. And again, that is without even factoring in the vast amount of intelligence surveillance that occurs each year: the thousands of FISA wiretaps, the tens of thousands of National Security Letters (which Google is forbidden to include in its public count) and the uncountably vast quantities of data vacuumed up by the NSA. At what point does the wiretap report, with its minuscule piece of the larger surveillance picture, just become a ridiculous, irrelevant formality?

Lesson two: The drug war accounts for almost all criminal wiretaps. Wiretaps may be down a bit in 2011, but over the long term they’ve still increased massively. Since 1997, even as communication has migrated from telephone networks to the internet on a mass scale, the annual number of wiretaps has more than doubled. And as this handy chart assembled by security researcher Chris Soghoian shows, our hopeless War on Drugs is driving almost all of it: for fully 85 percent of wiretaps last year, a drug offense was the most serious offense listed on the warrant application—compared with “only” 73 percent of wiretaps in 1997. Little surprise there: when you try to criminalize a transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer, enforcement tends to require invasions of privacy. Oddly, law enforcement officials tend to gloss over these figures when asking legislators for greater surveillance authority. Perhaps citizens wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about approving these intrusive and expensive spying powers if they realized they were used almost exclusively to catch dope peddlers rather than murderers or kidnappers.

Speaking of dubious claims, lesson three: The encryption apocalypse is not nigh. As those of you who are both extremely nerdy and over 30 may recall, back in the 1990s we had something called the “Crypto Wars.” As far as the U.S. government was concerned, strong encryption technology was essentially a military weapon—not the sort of thing you wanted to allow in private hands, and certainly not something you could allow to be exported around the world. Law enforcement officials (and a few skittish academics) warned of looming anarchy unless the state cracked down hard on so-called “cypherpunks.” The FBI’s Advanced Telephony Unit issued a dire prediction in 1992 that within three years, they’d be unable to decipher 40 percent of the communications they intercepted.

Fortunately, they lost, and strong encryption in private hands has become the indispensable foundation of a thriving digital economy—and a vital shield for dissidents in repressive regimes. Frankly, it would probably have been worth the tradeoff even if the dire predictions had been right. But as computer scientist Matt Blaze observed back when the 2010 wiretap report was released, Ragnarok never quite arrives. The latest numbers show that investigators encountered encryption exactly 12 times in all those thousands of wiretaps. And how many times did that encryption prevent them from accessing the communication in question? Zero. Not once.

Now, to be sure, precisely because police seldom use wiretap orders for e-mail, that’s also a highly incomplete picture of the cases where investigations run up against encryption walls. But as the FBI once again issues panicked warnings that they’re “going dark” and demands that online companies be requried to compromise security by building surveillance backdoors into their services, it’s worth recalling that we’ve heard this particular wolf cry before. It would have been a disastrous mistake to heed it back then, and on the conspicuously scanty evidence being offered during the encore, it would be crazy to approach these renewed demands with anything less than a metric ton of salt.

Why Data Transparency?

At a recent Capitol Hill briefing on government transparency, I made an effort to describe the importance of getting data from the government reflecting its deliberations, management, and results.

I analogized to the World Wide Web. The structure that allows you to find and then view a blog post as a blog post is called hypertext markup language, or html. HTML is what made the Internet into the huge, rollicking information machine you see today. Think of the darkness we lived in before we had it.

Government information is not yet published in useable formats—as data—for the public to use as it sees fit. We need government information published as data, so we can connect it in new ways, the way the World Wide Web allowed connections among documents, images, and sounds.

And when you connect data together, you get power in a way that doesn’t happen with the web, with documents. You get this really huge power out of it.

Tim Berners-Lee was not thinking of wresting power from government when he said that, but the inventor of the World Web does a better job than I could of arguing for getting data and making it available for any use. We’ll look back on today with bemusement and surprise at the paucity of information we had about our government’s activities and expenditures.

Data Formats —> Public Oversight

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has a terrific op-ed piece on Internet-age government transparency in the Washington Examiner today:

If agencies used consistent data formats for their financial information, their financial reports could be electronically reconciled. It would be possible to trace funds from Congressional appropriations through agencies’ budgets to final use. The same data could flow automatically into USASpending.gov, without the errors and inconsistencies that make it unreliable today.

The idea is simple, if not easy to implement. Put government data in uniform formats, accessible to the public, and let public oversight work its will. Whether you prioritize good government, small government, or both, expect improvement.

John Berry: Angry about Federal Pay

The head of the federal Office of Personnel Management, John Berry, has become unhinged by a few recent critiques of federal worker pay. Berry is an Obama appointee who apparently views his role as being a one-sided lobbyist for worker interests, rather than a public servant balancing the interests of taxpayers and federal agencies.

Here is an 11-minute audio interview with Berry on Federal News Radio on Friday, where he lashes out at USA Today, Washington Times, and the Cato Institute. Berry is defensive, emotional, and unwilling to accept that new data might indicate a possible problem with the underpaid federal worker thesis that is constantly pushed by the unions.

What do I mean when I say he is unhinged? An investigation by the USA Today found that in 83 percent of 216 occupations examined, federal workers earned more than comparable private-sector workers. Here is Berry’s response when asked whether he thinks the USA Today analysis is a good one: “It is absolutely not! It comes straight out of the Cato Institute!” But, believe it or not, the nation’s largest newspaper is not part of some libertarian plot.

The most troubling aspect of Berry’s performance is his deliberate effort to wrap himself in the flag and deny that anyone should even ask questions about federal workers during a time of national security concerns. It is strange that an Obama administration official would so vigorously use the Bush administration tactic of “waving the bloody shirt.

Here are excerpts from the interview starting at 1:48 minutes and then 5:54 minutes (my transcription):

Interviewer: “There was a line in this [Washington Times] editorial, one of the first lines, it was the first line of the second paragraph, and that is: ‘Consider how much money a bureaucrat can make for successfully sitting at his desk for a year.’

Berry: …You know, this is the kind of, it’s just a denigration of public service and, and it is, there should be no place for it in our country… And to be denigrated and say that they’re bureaucrats sitting at a desk pushing paper there should be no place in American society for such hyperbole.

Interviewer: I wonder if this is something that comes because of the economy. Where is this upswell of anger coming from?

Berry: …And that’s why I just get steamed when I read something like this because it denigrates that incredible motivation, and like I said to denigrate those who even put their lives on the line day in and day out so that the rest of us and our children can be safe, there should be no place for it. And I think my hope is that a lot of people, not just me, will rise up and respond to this with the anger and the facts that it deserves. Because as long as people can get away with denigrating that level of service, then we are putting at risk the future of our country.”

Have you got Berry’s message? We simply cannot allow people to use their free speech rights to question the operations of government because that will undermine national security. So people need to “rise up” and get “angry,” grab their pitchforks, and head to the homes of anyone who dares question high government worker pay because it puts “at risk the future of our country.”

Good grief!

More from me on federal worker pay here.

(Thanks to Solomon Stein and Justin Logan)

The Paucity of Poor Kids in Many Public Schools

There’s a widespread belief that public schools are homogeneous and all inclusive while private schools are bastions of the elite. This was proven to be a myth decades ago by the renowned sociologist James Coleman, and as far as I know, that pattern of findings hasn’t changed in recent years.

Nevertheless, the myth continues. A new Fordham Institute paper provides a partial antidote, pointing out that quite a few public schools enroll virtually no low-income kids, making them bastions of the elite. Where the Fordham paper trips up a bit is in calling these elite public schools “private public schools.” As already noted above, private schools are, on average, better economically integrated than their government counterparts, so this phrase is exactly backwards and, as Sara Mead points out, is quite a slap in the face to the many private schools that do yeoman’s work serving large numbers of low-income students. Still, good to have folks taking note of these data.

Obama Ringing the Pell

As part of his ill-considered credentialing-to-compete initiative, President Obama wants to greatly increase both the size and availablity of Pell Grants. Under his proposed FY 2011 budget, the total pot of Pell aid would rise from $28.2 billion in 2009 to $34.8 billion in 2011; the maximum award would go from $5,350 to $5,710; and the number of students served would rise by around 1 million.  

A critical question, of course, is whether increasing Pell will ultimately make college more affordable or self-defeatingly fuel further tuition inflation. The New York Times took that up in yesterday’s Room for Debate blog.

Economist Richard Vedder has long educated people about the inflationary effect of student aid, and does so again with great clarity. It’s higher-ed analyst Art Hauptman, however, whom I think best captures what likely occurs when Pell is combined with all the cheap loans and other aid furnished by Washington, states, and schools themselves:

The degree to which student aid affects what colleges and universities charge varies between the Pell Grant and student loans. The Pell Grant has not had much effect on tuition levels in part because the amount of the awards does not vary with where a student enrolls. Institutions cannot affect how much a student receives, and the institutions that charge the most enroll the fewest Pell Grant recipients.

By contrast…there are several good reasons to believe that student loans have been a factor in the rising cost of a college education. Tuition has increased by twice the inflation rate for the past three decades while annual loan volume has increased tenfold in constant dollars.

Unlike Pell Grants…colleges have some control over how much students borrow as loan amounts. Moreover, just as one couldn’t imagine house prices being as high as they now are if mortgage financing were not available, it is difficult to believe that colleges and universities could have increased their charges so rapidly over time without the ready availability of students’ ability to borrow.

[W]e should worry…that increases in Pell Grants may lead institutions to reduce the amount of discounts they would otherwise have provided to the recipients, who are from poor families, and move the aid these students would have received to others. This possibility…is supported by the data showing that public and private institutions are now more likely to provide more aid to more middle-income students than low-income students.

So what’s likely going on? Cheap federal loans – which are available to students of all income levels and vary according to a college’s price – are probably the main direct tuition inflator. More indirectly, Pell probably encourages schools to move other aid from poorer to wealthier students, enabling the latter to pay ever-higher “sticker” prices. In other words, student aid powers tuition inflation!

Which brings me to a quick comment about the submission from College Board economist Sandy Baum, who trots out the standard “declining state appropriations”  to explain our college-price pain.

How many more times do I need to disprove this? Apparently, at least once more:

(Source: State Higher Education Executive Officers)

Public funding is a roller coaster and tuition revenue an incline. Over the last quarter century, per-pupil state and local funding for public colleges and universities went up and down, but dropped overall by a mere $8 per year. In contrast, public colleges’ per-pupil revenue from tuition (net of state and local student aid) rose more or less unabated, growing by about $73 per year. 

This – as well as the fact that private colleges are also guilty of huge price inflation – clearly belies the notion that colleges raise prices because skinflinty governments make them. That might be part of the explanation, but an even bigger part is almost certainly that colleges raise prices because, thanks to ever-growing student aid, they can.

Government and GDP

The expansion in government and poor state of the economy got me thinking about how government growth is reflected in measured gross domestic product. So here is a wonky look at the treatment of government in the Bureau of Economic Analysis GDP data.

Data notes: By “government,” I mean total federal, state, and local. For 2009, I’m using the average of second and third quarter data. All data from BEA Tables here.

GDP measures total production. In 2009, government production was 20.7 percent of U.S. GDP.  Government production is roughly the sum of government value-added (the stuff it produces itself) and government purchases. The first item, government value-added, was 12.4 percent of GDP and mainly consists of employee compensation. For example, the Pentagon produces output by adding together fighter pilots, which it hires, and fighter jets, which it buys.

A more commonly cited measure of government is total government spending. In 2009, that was 38 percent of GDP. The difference between this number (38 percent) and the production number (20.7 percent) is 17.3 percent, and represents the sum of government interest payments and transfer payments to individuals and businesses.

Figure 1 shows how the three measurements of government size have changed over time. Government production has remained fairly stable as a share of the economy, but total government spending has soared. The growing gap between these two lines mainly represents the massive growth in transfer (or subsidy) programs, such as Social Security.

12-10-09 edwardschart

How Does Government Growth Affect Measured GDP?

Consider how the recent rise in government spending might have affected measured GDP. First, let’s look first at the production part of government spending. The important thing here is that we don’t know how much government workers actually produce because their output is generally not sold on the market. As a consequence, the BEA measures their output as the sum of their compensation amounts. Also, we know the dollar value of the things the government buys, but we don’t know how much those intermediate goods actually produce when in the hands of the government. So the government production portion of GDP seems kind of shaky, despite the superb efforts of the BEA to assemble all the data.

Anyway, let’s say the government adds a new worker with pay of $100,000, the BEA measures GDP being boosted by $100,000. But it might be that the worker doesn’t actually produce anything useful, and he adds zero to the economy’s actual output.

If the government hires that worker away from the private sector, private GDP would go down by about $100,000. As a result, overall measured GDP would be unchanged. But that would be incorrect because the economy’s actual output fell by $100,000.

So let’s say the government spent $100 billion to hire a million new government workers. Let’s say half of those workers produced as much value as their salaries, but the other half produced nothing of value. The result of this government expansion would be that the BEA would overestimate U.S. GDP by $50 billion. (I am assuming that the government’s hiring doesn’t change the unemployment rate. I’m also ignoring the distortionary effects of higher taxes).  

Now let’s look at the transfer or subsidy portion of government, which equals 17.3 percent of GDP.

Let’s say the government increases transfers by $100 billion, perhaps by increasing Social Security benefits, and funding it by higher taxes on wages.

If there are no behavioral responses among taxpayers and benefit recipients, measured GDP would be unchanged, which would be the correct answer.

But of course there would be behavioral responses. The higher taxes would induce people to work less and the higher Social Security benefits would induce people to save less and retire earlier. The results would be that output would fall, and that would be accurately reflected in measured GDP.

In sum, my purpose here was not to explore how a growing government affects the economy, which is a huge subject. Instead, it was to explore whether measured GDP accurately reflects changes in the size of government. The answer appears to be that the transfer part of government spending (17.3 percent of GDP) would be accurately reflected in a shrinking GDP, but that the production portion of government spending (20.7 percent of GDP) may not be. If workers produce less output when they work for government than when they work in the private economy, the latter portion of measured GDP will be overstated.