Parties in Power Like National ID Systems

In a recent post, I noted how Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano was “taking the national ID tar baby in a loving embrace.” Now the administration seems to be similarly embracing the E-Verify government background check system.

Starting September 8th, it will go forward with a Bush administration plan to require federal contractors to check their employees against federal databases. The E-Verify program is riddled with problems, and it will send many American workers and legal immigrants into Kafkaesque ordeals when they find they aren’t approved by the federal government to earn a living. Ultimately, “internal enforcement” of immigration law, which is what E-Verify is about, requires a biometric national identity system.

Wasn’t a Democratic administration going to be the antidote to the aggressive security-statism of the Bush administration? Well, no. Once in power, either political party will see merit in national ID systems. After all, a national ID gives the government direct regulatory control over individuals - and that’s a sweet sound to the powerful, regardless of political affiliation. This is why it was so interesting to see the left begin to embrace a national ID as it anticipated an Obama victory in November.

Parties in power like national ID systems.

STEM Sky Not Falling?

Education policy is far too rarely driven by facts or logic – they’re just too inconvenient, mucking up both uber-hyped “crises” and warm-and-fuzzy myths.

Recently, the big scare has been that the United States is on its way to a desperate shortage of scientists and engineers, a message that has, of course, been heartily embraced by politicians determined to push more kids into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Well, it seems that once again the crisis du jour has been well overstated. USA Today has a great new story demonstrating that we actually have more than enough scientists and engineers. (Not that this hasn’t been pointed out before.) Most telling is the content in the article’s  sidebar, which includes some real crisis-deflating stuff:

Detailed findings issued last year by the federally funded RAND National Defense Research Institute found “no evidence of a current shortage” of science and engineering workers. It said National Science Foundation predictions of shortages so far have proved “inaccurate.”

RAND… recommended a permanent commitment to monitoring the USA’s science and technology performance, but said the slow growth of U.S.-born technical workers “will change when the earnings and attractiveness of S&E (science and engineering) careers improve.”

So we actually have plenty of scientists and engineers, and the market appears to be working just as it should?  I hope someone tells our leaders! Otherwise, they’ll almost certainly push even more kids into jobs that, it turns out, will probably only exist in the land of imaginary crises.

Three Cheers to Swiss Government for Resisting U.S. Fiscal Imperialism

Switzerland has better tax policy than America and a far stronger human-rights policy regarding personal privacy. This makes the IRS unhappy, since the tax police would like to find out if some Americans have overseas bank accounts.

In an odious display of fiscal imperialism, the Department of Justice is demanding that one of the Swiss banks divulge any information about American clients - even though this would mean imposing America’s bad law on a foreign institution operating on foreign soil.

Thankfully, the Swiss government has stepped in to ensure that the bank cannot be extorted.

Bloomberg reports:

Switzerland said it would seize UBS AG data to prevent the U.S. Justice Department from pursuing a U.S. court order seeking the identities of 52,000 American account holders in a crackdown on tax evaders. The assertion came in court papers yesterday in federal court in Miami, where the Justice Department sued UBS on Feb. 19, a day after the bank avoided U.S. prosecution for helping wealthy Americans evade taxes. The U.S. effort to enforce a summons seeking the names would force UBS to violate Swiss laws barring disclosure of such data, the filing said.

The Swiss government “will use its legal authority to ensure that the bank cannot be pressured to transmit the information illegally, including if necessary by issuing an order taking effective control of the data at UBS that is the subject of the summons,” according to the filing.

…“It is hoped that it will be unnecessary for the Government of Switzerland to take the extraordinary action of issuing an order to seize the information at issue, but such an action should be expected if the IRS continues to pressure UBS to violate Swiss law,” according to the filing.

Socialist Surtax for Health Care

In their desperate bid to find half a trillion dollars or so to fund a health care expansion, Democrats have no shortage of bad ideas. Indeed, their new idea is even worse than last month’s dastardly plan to hike taxes on beer and wine.

The Democrat’s new idea is to slap a special “surtax” on high earners. A surtax is simply a flat additional charge based on adjusted gross income. The model for the new scheme seems to be a four percent surtax proposed by House tax writer Charlie Rangel in 2007.

Elsewhere I’ve explained why tax hikes on high earners is poor economic policy.  But politically, what’s striking is how far American economic policy is moving to the left of policies in other major nations.

The chart shows that the current top U.S. personal income tax rate (including the average state rate) is 42 percent, which is the same as the average in the 30 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

President Obama already plans to increase the top federal rate from 35 percent to 40 percent at the end of 2010. That would push the combined federal-state rate to 47 percent, substantially above the average of other major industrial nations. Imposing a 4-percent surtax on top would push the top rate to 51 percent, which would be higher than many nations that were traditionally more socialist than America, including France (46%), Germany (48%), and Italy (45%).

Obama and the Democrats chafe at being labeled “socialists”, and it’s true that Republicans are just as socialist when it comes to spending policies. But tax rates higher than France? Tax rates over 50%? Come on Democrats, you’ve got to be kidding!

This “Cyberwar” Is a Cybersnooze

The AP and other sources have been reporting on a “cyberattack” affecting South Korea and U.S. government Web sites, including the White House, Secret Service and Treasury Department.

Allegedly mounted by North Korea, this attack puts various “cyber” threats in perspective. Most Americans will probably not know about it, and the ones who do will learn of it by reading about it. Only a tiny percentage of people will notice the absence of the Web sites attacked. (An update to the story linked above notes that several agencies and entities “blunted” the attacks, as well-run Web sites will do.)

This is the face of “cyberwar,” which has little strategic value and little capacity to do real damage. This episode also underscores the fact that “cyberterrorism” cannot exist – because this kind of attack isn’t terrifying.

As I said in my recent testimony before the House Science Committee, it is important to secure web sites, data, and networks against all threats, but this can be done and is being done methodically and successfully – if imperfectly – by the distributed owners and controllers of all our nation’s “cyber” assets. Hyping threats like “cyberwar” and “cyberterror” is not helpful.

Tax Marijuana to Pay for Teachers?

On my way into work this morning, I heard a report on the radio about a proposal in California to tax marijuana in order to alleviate the state’s budget meltdown. With the money the state could raise, said one supporter, California “could hire 20,000 teachers.”

Now, I have nothing insightful to say about the likely revenue or anything along those lines that would come from taxation of wacky tabacky – it’s not my issue.  I can tell you, though, that the addiction that has largely brought California to its knees, ironically, is the very one that the would-be weed taxer in the story held up as a terrific target for resulting funds: state education spending, especially on teachers.

For starters, by law at least 40 percent of California’s budget must be spent on education, and considering that most education spending goes to employee salaries, by default that makes teachers one of the biggest drains on state coffers. But that’s just by default – as the quote above suggests, teachers themselves seem to have a powerful grip on the state and the minds of its people.

One bunch of teachers that almost literally has a kung-fu grip on the minds – or is it the throats? – of Californians is the California Teachers Association, a 340,000-member behemoth of a teacher union, which really says something when you consider that teachers unions are themselves the behemoths of labor unions. Little gets done affecting education without the CTA’s approval.

Then there is class-size reduction. Despite dubious evidence of the value of class-size reduction, in the mid-1990s – when the state felt flush with cash – California undertook a massive effort to bring K-3 class sizes down from an average of 29 students, to an average of 20. The undertaking required a leap from 62,226 K-3 teachers in the 1995-96 school year to 91,902 in 1998-99. According to the 2002 “capstone” report from the CSR Research Consortium, it was an expensive effort that produced at best minor improvements. Despite costing a billion dollars or more each year of implementation, researchers could find “only limited evidence linking [test score] gains to CSR.”

To be fair to the beleaguered Golden State,  it’s not the only place where politicians, and often the public, seem to be constantly jonesing for more teachers and education spending. As I have laid out before, nationwide we have gone from 22.3 pupils per teacher in 1970 to 15.7 in 2005, and real per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled. Meanwhile, academic outcomes have been pretty much flat.

What explains this slavish addiction? It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems to come down to this: people feel that education is important; that the more teachers we have, the better; and that you can never spend too much on the children. But it clearly isn’t that simple. Government failure is very, very real – especially with a government monopoly as monstrous as public schooling – and sooner or later you have to pay the price for constantly doing the same crippling thing just to make yourself feel good.