No More FDRs

Robert Zoellick tells the presidential candidates to aspire to be ”a 21st-century FDR” because “A World in Crisis Means A Chance for Greatness.” A new New Deal, a new Bretton Woods, a new multilateralism–holy cow, the president has it in his power to make the world over again. Poor Bill Clinton, who reportedly told friends after 9/11 that he was frustrated that he never got such a great defining crisis to deal with. Now another president is going to get a chance to knock some heads together and have historians call him great.

But what is Zoellick thinking, urging Barack Obama and John McCain to reach for greatness? Aren’t these two candidates megalomaniacal enough? McCain, who thinks that only corruption could explain anyone disagreeing with his position at any given moment, was a childhood admirer of Napoleon and now names the imperialist, meddlesome Teddy Roosevelt as his presidential model. And Obama of course said on the day he secured the Democratic nomination for president

that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation.

Don’t give these guys any more ambition than they have now. The cult of the presidency is quite enough already.

Twitter Terror — Laughable? Or Is There a Lesson?

I was amused to read that a draft Army intelligence report identified micro-blogging service Twitter as a potential tool for terrorists. On the other hand, it’s regrettable that this terrorism mania persists to foster this kind of report and media attention. There’s no distinct terror threat from Twitter.

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with blogs. On Twitter you can publish ever-so-brief thoughts, giving your readers (or “followers”) ambient awareness of what’s on your mind or what you’re doing. Here’s an example: the Cato Institute’s Twitter feed, which I encourage you to follow. WashingtonWatch.com has one too. And CNN. And former Cato intern Felix Ling.

Now, to use of Twitter by terrorists: Sure, it’s possible, just like it’s possible with any communications medium. Twitter is right up there with telephones, pen and paper, email, SMS, and smoke signals as a potential tool for terrorism. Each of these media have different properties which make them more or less susceptible to use for wrongdoing — and more or less protective of legitimate privacy for the law-abiding.

Like most common digital communications, Twitter is a pretty weak medium for planning bad things. Copies of every post are distributed far and wide — and all “Tweets” are housed pretty much permanently by a single organization.

If you want to get caught doing something wrong, use Twitter to plan it.

Securing against terrorism is hard because terrorists don’t wear uniforms or occupy territory. Their tools are our tools: sneakers, sandwiches, credit cards, cars, steak knives, box cutters, cameras, cell phones, driver’s licenses, Web sites, Napster, Friendster, Facebook, spinach. The list goes on and on and on.

(Yes, spinach — it grows terrorists’ muscles.)

The problem is determining what things in our society have a proximate relationship to terrorism that is greater than their relationship to all the good things we do with them. Box cutters were integral to the 9/11 attacks, but they are used by millions of people every day for wonderful purposes, so we haven’t pursued restrictions on, or monitoring of, box cutters (beyond airplanes, of course). Highly enriched uranium can be used to do a lot of damage. There is exceedingly little chance of it being used by terrorists, but it’s prudent to pursue controls on this material and monitor for peoply trying to acquire it.

Twitter and other digital media are used billions of times a day for all the good things law-abiding people do. There is also a small chance that they’ll be used for wrongdoing, and we have rules about what to do when that chance arises. Alas, Supreme Court cases under the Fourth Amendment are a little too permissive these days.

The chance of Twitter being used by terrorists (real ones, serious ones) is very small and not newsworthy. We’re all relatively inexperienced with the security dilemmas created by terrorism, and it’s appropriate to give a brief thought to how all the implements and infrastructure in society might be used to do damage. In summary, the production of a report on Twitter terror is just shy of silly. The media attention paid to the question: fully silly.

Applications Open for Summer 2009 Google Policy Fellowships

The nice folks at Google have opened the application window for summer 2009 Google Policy Fellowships. It’s open to undergraduate, graduate, or law students interested in in the world of tech policy.

Google places policy fellows at a number of leading policy institutions in addition to Cato, and I suspect it’s a good opportunity to learn and help shape public policy at any of them.

This past summer’s Google policy fellow at Cato was Aaron Massey, who is a doctoral student in computer science at North Carolina State University. Aaron did very good work with us, and we continue to work on how identification and credentialing technologies can make us more secure without unsecuring the blessings of liberty.

(I think the highest achievement in Aaron’s young life so far, though, is winning Bruce Schneier’s Third Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest as the inventor of Tommy Tester Toothpaste Strips.)

A tough act to follow, but I encourage you to apply, particularly people with computer science and information policy/processing backgrounds.

The Promise of Divided Government

Former Catoite Radley Balko argues that the Republican Party deserves to lose because it “has exiled its Goldwater-Reagan wing and given up all pretense of any allegiance to limited government.” He goes on to detail all the sordid ways in which the GOP has indeed betrayed its allegedly pro-free market, limited government beliefs and thus “forfeited its right to govern.”

I don’t disagree with any of Balko’s analysis, but I do take issue with his conclusion for one very simple (some would say banal) reason: The best way to limit the federal Leviathan is to have Congress and the presidency controlled by different parties. See, for example, the relevant parts of former Catoite Stephen Slivinski’s book, Buck Wild: How the Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government.  Slivinski calculates that when one party controls the political branches, the growth of real per capita government spending is 3.4%. Under divided government, the rate is 1.5%. And it doesn’t much matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in sole charge: 3.3% government growth under Democrats vs. 3.6% under Republicans. The most libertarian combination seems to be a Democratic president with a Republican Congress, where the average rate of government growth is 0.4%.  (This is also the rarest alignment in modern times, so it may be less significant statistically.)

In short, yes the Bush administration, enabled by a corrupt (ideologically and otherwise) Republican Congress, has been the second coming of LBJ.  But rather than reward a party whose leaders in Congress have even lower approval ratings than President Bush with unified control of government, it might be better for limited government if the Dems gained in Congress (preferably without a filibuster-proof Senate because judges and international treaties are my pet issues) while losing the White House.  Which isn’t to say that this would necessarily be better than a President Obama with a Republican Congress, just that the chance of the GOP taking over even one house of Congress is only slightly greater than the chance that Bob Barr will be elected president.

Today at Cato

Op-Ed: “How’s Obama Going to Raise $4.3 Trillion?” by Alan Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal

Op-Ed: “A Healthy Schism in South Africa,” by Tony Leon in the Washington Post

Article: “In Opposition to Looseness,” by Robert A. Levy and William Mellor in The New Republic

Podcast: “Troubling Copyright Law Turns Ten,” featuring Timothy B. Lee

Op-Ed: “Thank You For Not Voting,” by Will Wilkinson in the Ottawa Citizen

Topics:

Crumbling Highways?

There is much talk of a second economic “stimulus” bill that would send tens of billions of added federal tax dollars to state governments for infrastructure. Senator Obama recently promised “to put two million more Americans to work, rebuilding our crumbling roads and schools and bridges.”

Is America’s infrastructure really crumbling? Many highways are congested, but at least on the East Coast where I travel, states seem to be continually adding capacity. With schools, the pattern I see is governments building large new structures and knocking down buildings that were built only a few decades ago. When I was a kid I lived for a while in England and went to a school that was about 100 years old, which I thought was kinda cool.

Anyway, if more infrastructure than usual really is crumbling, then governments are doing something wrong because the chart shows that total state and local capital investment is actually up in recent years.

How much spending on items such as highways and airports is the correct amount? I don’t know, and neither do politicians in Washington. The way to find out is to privatize as much infrastructure as we can and let entrepreneurs raise the financing and develop the innovative solutions that they are so good at.