October 24, 2006 5:16PM

Vegemitegate: the Saga Continues

An update from my post yesterday on the supposed ban on Vegemite: its not true. According to this article, it is all just a misunderstanding between friends:

Under US regulations, folate can be added only to breads and cereals. One of the Vitamin B components (in Vegemite) is folate,’ [FDA spokesman] Herndon explained. ‘In and of itself, it’s not a violation. If they’re adding folate to it, boosting it up, technically it would be a violation. But the FDA has not targeted it and I don’t think we intend to target Vegemite simply because of that.’

OK, Mr. FDA. I’ll call off the hounds. But I will be testing your system in January when I return from Australia with a year’s worth of Vegemite in my suitcase.

October 24, 2006 4:53PM

Spontaneous Order Be Damned

In the Washington Post today, columnist Marc Fisher discusses the birth of a community gathering place in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. The county government cleared a downtown area a couple years ago in preparation for a big and expensive redevelopment scheme featuring an ice rink, civic building, and veterans memorial. The 35,000 square foot site has been covered with inexpensive artificial grass and citizens of all ages are using it as a meeting place and an area to play games and have family picnics. 


Now that the government wants to go ahead and put up its fancy structures on the grass area, citzens are saying essentially “wait a minute, we kinda like this impromtu community gathering place, we don’t want to see it go.” One young person said the current place is such a success because it is “unprogrammed.”


I’m no expert, but I suspect that much urban planning has been poor because planners and politicians fall in love with pristine architectural sketches of grand new projects, and don’t spend much time actually observing how citizens use the streets, buildings, roads, and environment. 

October 24, 2006 4:07PM

Carrying Liberalization Further

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I'm in Tbilisi for our conference on "Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda."  It starts tomorrow evening, but many of the participants are arriving tonight (Tbilisi is a great place, but not the easiest to reach, especially after the Russian government banned all travel between the Russian Federation and Georgia).  What was originally planned for 100 participants has grown to at least 180 (and maybe more).  It's great to talk to libertarians from so many countries (28 in all) and to feel the excitement for the advancement of freedom.

The keynote speaker tomorrow night will be Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, who will speak on a topic that has gained greater significance since the Russian blockade on trade and travel with Georgia: "Globalization and Liberty."  The speakers were chosen for their ability to inspire, as well as for their practical knowledge.  The other banquet speakers will be Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli and former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar (winner of the Cato Institute's 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty).  I'll be posting occasionally from the conference.

October 24, 2006 2:49PM

Should Government Identity Documents Use RFID?

Interesting question - and perhaps simpler than many people think. 

Back in June, the Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee (on which I serve) published a draft report on the use of RFID for human tracking.  ("RFID" stands for radio frequency identification, a suite of technologies that identify items - and, if put in cards, track people - by radio.)  The report poured cold water on using RFID in government-mandated identity cards and documents.  This met with some consternation among the DHS bureaus that plan to use RFID this way, and among the businesses eager to sell the technology to the government.

Despite diligent work to put the report in final form, the Committee took a pass on it at its most recent meeting in September - nominally because new members of the Committee had not had time to consider it.  The Committee is expected to finish this work and finalize the report in December.

But skeptics of the report continue to come out of the woodwork.  Most recently, the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote a letter to the Privacy Committee encouraging more study of the issue, implicitly discouraging the Committee from finding against RFID-embedded government documents.  CDT invited "a deeper factual inquiry and analysis [that] would foster more thoughtful and constructive public dialog."

If the correct answer is "no," do you have to say "yes" to be constructive? RFID offers no anti-forgery or anti-tampering benefit over other digital technologies that can be used in identification cards - indeed it has greater security weaknesses than alternatives.  And RFID has only negligible benefits in terms of speed and convenience because it does not assist with the comparison between the identifiers on a card and the bearer of the card.  This is what takes up all the time in the process of identifying someone.   (If that's too much jargon, you need to read my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.)

I shared my impression of CDT's comments in an e-mail back to Jim Dempsey.  Jim and CDT do valuable work, but I think they are late to this discussion and are unwittingly undermining the Privacy Committee's work to protect Americans' privacy and civil liberties. My missive helps illustrate the thinking and the urgency of this problem, so after the jump, the contents of that e-mail:

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October 23, 2006 7:37PM

Nightmare Politics

If you’re not into fantasy football and the like, policy buffs around the country can now play Fantasy Congress, a website created by students at Claremont McKenna College. As the New York Times explains,

Just as in fantasy football or baseball, each player picks a team — in this case, 4 senators and 12 House members of varying seniority levels — and competes with other players in a league typically managed by a friend or a co‐​worker.…


Players accumulate points as the legislators they have chosen go about their business on Capitol Hill. A House member or senator earns five points for introducing a bill or an amendment, and more points for negotiating successfully each step in the legislative process.

Yikes! Yes, that’s right: In this nightmare Congress, much as in the real one, you “win” by introducing laws and getting them passed. No points for keeping your mitts off our money, or for failing to rush in with a legislative pander after every headline or “Dateline” story.


And so yes, that means that the top‐​scoring House member is Mr. Pork, Don Young of Alaska. “Don Young’s Way” is not just a bridge in Alaska, it’s pretty much the story of Washington. And now the story of Fantasy Washington.


Hat tip: Ryan Posly.

October 23, 2006 3:45PM

With Allies Like These…

Close readers of my blog entries will have detected an increasingly irritated tone of late. What with farm subsidies, Doha doldrums, idiotic “solutions” to the trade deficit “problem” and a campaign season upon us, my long‐​suffering colleagues have become used to my cries of despair.


And now this, through a tip from my colleague and next‐​door‐​office‐​mate, Brink Lindsey (who has no doubt tired of my “You’ve got to be kidding me” exclaims as I read the headlines every morning). The United States has banned Vegemite, that staple food of Aussies everywhere and an emotionally crucial link to the motherland for all us expatriates living in the United States.


According to this article, the FDA allows folate (or folic acid, which has been added to Vegemite) to be added only to breads and cereals (never mind that Vegemite was practically invented for nutritional purposes, to stave off Vitamin B deficiencies). From a 1996 news release from the FDA:

specified grain products will be required to be fortified with folic acid at levels ranging from 0.43 milligrams to 1.4 mg per pound of product. These amounts are designed to keep daily intake of folic acid below 1mg, because intakes above that amount may mask symptoms of pernicious anemia, a form of vitamin B12 deficiency which primarily affects older people.

Heaven forbid that the flood of Vegemite pouring into the United States should upset the delicately balanced just‐​enough‐​but‐​not‐​too‐​much‐​folic‐​acid directive from the FDA.


Australia is an ally of the United States. A small ally, yes, but loyal. Our troops have served side by side in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf wars. Australian troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, more to the point, our countries have signed a free‐​trade agreement


Part of me is taking comfort that this truly is a non‐​tariff barrier implemented to protect consumer health (misguided though that aim may be), rather than an act of disguised protectionism designed to shield the politically powerful import‐​competing domestic Vegemite industry located in electorally important swing‐​states. But it’s unfair all the same. And I’m angry.


Thank goodness my parents smuggled contraband Vegemite through customs when they visited me in July, but I think not of my own well‐​stocked shelves, but the growling bellies of my compatriots. I plan to share this story with my Australian friends. Expect outrage.


(Please note I am filing this under Civil Liberties, as well as Trade).

October 23, 2006 3:13PM

What is “Economic Insecurity” and Why Should We Care?

In his new book, The Great Risk Shift, and on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly website a couple weeks back, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker has been selling his line that "economic insecurity" is on the rise, and the state needs to do something about it.

Hacker seems to me to get a lot of mileage out of equivocating systematically between a psychological and objective sense of the word 'insecurity'. Hacker may be right that there has been an increase in income volatility (though, I'm told, it is not clear how much this has to do with systemic economic changes, as opposed to details of Hacker's model and the changing composition of the "households" tracked by the data), and this no doubt causes people some anxiety. But anxiety is not actual insecurity. The Bush administration, in its constant efforts to shore up political support for its so-called "global war on terror" does its best to needle Americans into feeling sufficiently anxious about the constant threat of terrorist attacks. But our anxiety and our national security are two completely separate things. We can feel anxious yet be secure, and we can feel perfectly safe at the same moment a deadly missile bears down upon us from the sky. What matters most is whether we are secure, not how we feel. Likewise with economy security.

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