July 14, 2006 3:15PM

There’s No Fixing the FBI’s Computers

While Congress and the Department of Justice consider mandating that ISPs retain data about all of our communications, the FBI, it seems, can't keep its own IT systems up to date. Putting aside the irony to focus on practical matters, what will bring the FBI up to snuff? I told the reporter in the article linked just above that nothing will.

The problem is institutional; when an organization's membership doesn't enjoy feast or famine based on the success of the organization, very little can bring it into focus and create success. . . . Congressional and public oversight is a weak, weak substitute for competitive pressure.

But the FBI's computer systems have to be fixed, don't they? They do. And to get there, you might have to shrink the FBI and law enforcement generally — especially federal law enforcement.

Because of the nature of bureaucracies, I don't think there is an effective management solution to the FBI's problems with IT. The better answer occurs at a higher level of abstraction:

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July 14, 2006 2:33PM

Budget Discipline: The Democratic Theme for ‘O6?

Remember when some of us limited‐​government types were wondering when the Democrats would finally realize voters were fed up with the GOP’s massive federal budgets and start talking about fiscal discipline? Well, it’s finally happened — the talking, at least. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi just gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) in which she professed that Democrats would launch a campaign to reduce the number of budget earmarks if they won a House majority in November.


She even sounded a bit like Jeff Flake at times: “Personally … I’d get rid of all of them. None of them is worth the skepticism, the cynicism the public has … and the fiscal irresponsibility of it.” 


Most of the time, her message degenerated into standard Democratic tones. Pelosi still hopes to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for high‐​income taxpayers and hike the minimum wage. Yet even her support for the latter seemed to be focus‐​group tested: “We will not support a raise for Congress until Congress supports raising the minimum wage.” But that’s hardly a concession to fiscal discipline — it’s a hellacious twofer! (If you like this bad policy, you should love this even worse one!)


Frankly, I can’t help but be skeptical that Pelosi is really interested in getting federal spending under control. Nor am I convinced that she could keep her troops in line in such a battle. She and other Democrats had their chance to rail against earmarks and the GOP spending explosion during the past five years, but most — with very few exceptions, like Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee — sat out that fight. 


What Pelosi really wants, of course, is to regain Democratic control of the House. The good news is that she feels like she has to talk even a little like a fiscal conservative in order to do it. 


The GOP spending explosion has been awful to behold. Perhaps the fact that the public’s outrage over it is loud enough to entice a San Francisco Democrat to try to sound a teensy bit like a budget hawk might be worth savoring.

July 14, 2006 2:14PM

More on McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues

Following up on Radley's mention of Deirdre McCloskey's article on bourgeois virtues, here's what I just posted at the Guardian's "Comment is free" site: 

At Cato Policy Report the brilliant economist Deirdre McCloskey of the University of Illinois-Chicago and Erasmus University of Amsterdam (formerly the brilliant economist Donald McCloskey) writes about "bourgeois virtues," the subject of her new book. McCloskey says that in Western civilization we have traditionally recognized two kinds of virtues — the aristocratic virtues such as courage, and the peasant or Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity.

But, she argues, these virtues were developed for a pre-capitalist world of defined social classes. In the United States and an increasing part of the world, very few people are aristocrats and no one is condemned to peasant life. Rather, we are all bourgeois now. We live in commercial society, mostly in towns (the root of the word bourgeois). We're mostly middle class and engaged in business, as entrepreneurs, investors, managers, or employees, and also as customers.

And since the beginning of bourgeois society, the vocabulary of virtues has been used to berate and denounce capitalism. We're told that business is based on greed, not on virtue. It may be necessary to modern life, but businessmen are still expected to accept their dubious moral standing. Wouldn't sharing be more virtuous than selling? Isn't it better to serve society than to produce wealth?

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July 14, 2006 12:39PM

The Glories of a ‘Single Payer’ Health Care System

I recently attended a conference at Cambridge University, mainly involving Brits, none of whom had a good word to say about the National Health Service. What a change from times past, when so many British people thought it a matter of national pride to boast that “We have the finest health care system in the world.” (When I lived in the UK, I used to ask such people to what world they were referring, ’cause it sure wasn’t this one.)


Lo and behold, the NHS just released data on “hidden waits,” the time spent waiting for diagnostic tests. As the BBC noted in its coverage:

The figures, for 15 of the most common diagnostic tests including scans, internal examinations and hearing tests, mean that for many patients the wait for diagnosis is as long as the wait for treatment.

If you’re going to get sick with anything serious, be sure to do it in the United States. Even with all the problems facing American medicine and the irrationalities of our financing system, at least you’re likely to find out how sick you are and start treatment before it’s too late.

July 14, 2006 11:45AM

Why Tax Credits Are Better than Vouchers

A recent post at the popular conservative blog RedState argues that government‐​funded school vouchers are a bad idea. It points out the merits of having people pay for their own children’s education and the problems that government funding introduces. Fair enough.


But what to do for the millions of families who cannot afford a good independent education for their kids?


The answer is a nonrefundable education tax credit system applied to state and local taxes. A complete education tax credit program has two parts: a credit for parents to use against their own expenses, and a credit for individuals and businesses that donate to private scholarship‐​granting organizations (SGOs). The first part helps middle‐​income families pay for their own children’s schooling, and the second part ensures that low‐​income families also have the resources they need to participate in the education marketplace.


Under this system, no one is compelled to fund anything to which they might object, and the direct financial responsibility of parents is maximized. The personal credits involve people spending their own money on themselves, and the donation credits allow taxpayers to choose the SGO that receives their donations. No government money is used, but universal access is assured.


I give an exhaustive treatment of the differences between tax credits and vouchers in a paper titled “Forging Consensus.” Two critiques of that paper, along with my responses, appear here.


It is possible to ensure universal access to the education marketplace without sacrificing the freedom that makes markets work.

July 14, 2006 11:36AM

Charged with Second‐​Degree Innovating

Here's a clever idea:

They've been described as Minnesota's Tupperware parties for wine tasters.

For the past two years, a consultant with the Traveling Vineyard, a Massachusetts company operating in nearly 30 states, would come to your home. Along with friends, you'd sample a pinot or chardonnay, and then fill out a form if you wanted to buy some.

And here's how the regulators are going to kill it:

On Tuesday, state authorities raided a landmark Minneapolis liquor store, Surdyk's, seizing about 40 cases of wine in an effort to shut down the Traveling Vineyard. Surdyk's ships prepackaged and prepaid orders from the company to its customers.

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July 14, 2006 11:08AM

Hollywood’s Last Great Villain

It’s the businessman. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

Everybody knows that television plays a powerful role in shaping social attitudes. So it’s no surprise when groups of people who sense that they are being harmfully stereotyped in the medium lodge complaints. The “Frito bandito” is long gone as a result, and a show like “Amos ‘n’ Andy” would be unthinkable now. Even religion can get some respect if the yelps of outrage are loud enough: NBC’s “The Book of Daniel,” about a drug‐​addicted Episcopal minister with a pipeline to a hipster Jesus, was quickly canceled this year after protests that it was offensive to people of faith.


But there’s one group we never hear a peep from, even though its members may be the most routinely maligned of all. According to a study published last month by the Business & Media Institute, in the world of TV entertainment, “businessmen [are] a greater threat to society than terrorists, gangs or the mob.”


The study, titled “Bad Company,” looked at the top 12 TV dramas during May and November in 2005, ranging from crime shows like “CSI” to the goofy “Desperate Housewives.” Out of 39 episodes that featured business‐​related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.

Emily Chamlee‐​Wright and the late Don Lavoie covered similar ground in chapter five of their terrific book Culture and Enterprise.


On a related note, Deirdre McCloskey defended the virtues [pdf] of the bourgeois in a recent issue of Cato Policy Report.