DHS: Don’t Want Your Face Scanned? Don’t Travel!

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a privacy impact assessment for its Traveler Verification Service (TVS), a program designed to develop and expand DHS’s biometric entry-exit system for international flights. The document sends a clear message to passengers: if you don’t want your biometric information to be collected, don’t travel.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 required an automated screening system for foreign nationals leaving and entering the United States. Since 1996 a range of legislation has called for the implementation of a biometric entry-exit system, although such a system has yet to be fully implemented. In March, President Trump signed Executive Order 13780, which called upon DHS to “expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for in-scope travelers to the United States.”

According to the DHS privacy assessment, TVS is growing:

[Customs and Border Protection] is publishing this updated [privacy impact assessment] because the recently initiated TVS is expanding to allow commercial air carriers and select airport authorities (“partners”) to provide their own facial recognition cameras and capture the images of travelers consistent with their own business processes and requirements (for example, to use facial images instead of paper boarding passes).

More from the assessment:

These partners will capture the traveler images consistent with their business purposes, and then transmit the photos they capture to CBP through a connection with CBP’s cloud-based TVS. CBP does not capture the photos directly from the traveler under this TVS expansion.

There are already pilot face scanning schemes in place at airports in six American cities; Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, New York City, and Washington, D.C. These pilot programs allow passengers and pilots to opt out. The DHS assessment explains that while you may be able to opt out of TVS scanning, government collection of your biometrics is unavoidable if you want to travel (highlighting is mine):

The assessment goes on to explain that passengers will be able to opt out of biometric identification under TVS. However, unless this opt-out option is clearly advertised to travelers it’s likely that most travelers will use a ubiquitous facial scanning system at airports.

Anyone who travels from American airports is familiar with the body scanners the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses for security. You can opt out of these scanners, but it’s very rare to see travelers telling TSA officials that they’re not going through the machines. When I opt out of these scanners I’m almost always the only one doing so. That is, unless I’m traveling with some Cato colleagues.

Sadly, millions of Americans consider passing through a body scanner to be an ordinary part of air travel. It would be a shame if facial scans became as widely accepted.

Are ObamaCare’s Community-Rating Regulations a System of Price Controls?

ObamaCare’s community-rating regulations generally bar insurance companies from using any factor other than age to determine premiums, and prevent insurers from charging 64-year-olds more than three times what they charge 18-year-olds. I have long maintained community rating is nothing more than a system of government price controls, and should meet with the usual scorn economists universally heap on such boneheaded policies.

An esteemed colleague challenges my claim that ObamaCare’s community-rating is a system of price controls, because “the government doesn’t set a price.” Here is how I responded:

Price controls don’t always take the form of a fixed integer. Sometimes government sets prices using ratios.

Premium caps control prices by limiting this year’s premium to a ratio of last year’s premium. Medicaid’s prescription-drug price controls set prices as a ratio of the average wholesale price. Medicare’s price controls involve all sorts of complex ratios.

ObamaCare’s community-rating regulations control prices by (a) setting the ratio of premiums for healthy vs. sick people within each age category to 1:1, and (b) setting the ratio of premiums for young vs. old to 1:3. Insurers would not voluntarily follow those ratios, with good reason. But community rating forces insurers to set prices according to those ratios. Thus it is a price-control scheme.

Questioning THAAD’s Successful Test against an IRBM

Yesterday the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced a successful test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target. This is a significant milestone for the THAAD system, which was recently deployed to South Korea to defend southern cities and the port of Busan against missile attack by North Korea. Even though this particular test was planned months ago, its timing is especially important given North Korea’s successful test of the Hwasong-12 IRBM in May 2017.

Despite the successful test, it would be dangerous and premature for U.S. policymakers to read too much into THAAD’s capabilities. Initial information about the test suggests that it did not reflect a wartime use of an IRBM by North Korea. Moreover, the test could have negative implications for U.S.-China strategic stability.

Based on the statement released by the MDA and video of the test, the test seems to have been relatively easy for THAAD. For example, at the moment the warhead is intercepted it does not seem close to any other objects. This makes it relatively easy for THAAD’s infrared sensor to locate the warhead and slam into it. However, it would be much harder for the sensor to locate the warhead if the target missile broke up in flight and cluttered the sensor. It is not clear whether the target missile used in the most recent test broke up in flight, but based on past tests it seems unlikely. This makes for successful testing, but it does not reflect real-world scenarios.

Hegemonic Blackmail: Allied Pressure and U.S. Intervention

Discussions of military intervention often focus on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is entirely understandable: the war in Iraq was a catastrophic foreign policy choice that is still reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East today.

Yet the Iraq war is unusual in many ways. There was no existing civil war or humanitarian crisis, a factor which has driven many of America’s other post-Cold War interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo and Libya. The United States also undertook the invasion of Iraq largely alone and against the wishes of other countries; unable to gain support from the majority of its NATO allies, the Iraq invasion relied on the so-called “coalition of the willing,” a small ad-hoc group of countries persuaded by the Bush administration.

In my newly published article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, I attempt to move past the Iraq War case to examine the broader range of U.S. military interventions. I look at the two recent civil war cases where intervention was possible – Syria and Libya during the Arab spring – to explore the role played by allies and security partners in decision-making about whether to intervene.  

Logic suggests that smaller states do have a strong incentive to seek the help of a major power ally like the United States for their interventions. As I note in the article:

“Put more simply, small states can benefit substantially from the intervention of a major power ally, particularly if they lack the capacity or manpower to carry out an effective campaign alone. African Union peacekeeping forces, for example, typically lack military assets required for their missions; training, logistical support and equipment are often provided by the United States to overcome this deficiency (Williams 2011)…. pressure from allies to join an intervention is likely to be highest when A is larger (i.e., relatively more capable in military terms) than B, and has the potential to tip the balance toward B’s intervention objectives.”

Is ObamaCare Conservative?

That’s the thesis of a Washington Post opinion piece titled, “Why replacing Obamacare is so hard: It’s fundamentally conservative” by Northwestern University professor Craig Garthwaite. A lot of ObamaCare supporters find this claim appealing. If true, then it makes them look moderate and open to compromise, and makes ObamaCare’s conservative opponents look duplicitous and partisan. But is it true?

No. Not by a long shot.

I’m not a conservative. (I was, once, in my youth, but I’m feeling much better now.) So I will let the editors of National Review explain what a conservative approach to health reform is, as they did in this unsigned 2007 editorial. Spoiler alert: it’s a far cry from ObamaCare.

Against Universal Coverage

By The Editors — June 21, 2007

The Democrats running for president are competing over whose health-care plan gets closest to “universal coverage.” The Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, have been mostly silent. Their inattention to the issue is a mistake. A great many voters are anxious about health care, and better government policies could alleviate that anxiety. The Republican candidates have an opportunity to present a distinctively conservative set of reforms.

Those reforms should begin with the rejection of the goal of universal coverage. Deregulating health insurance would make it more affordable, and thus increase the number of Americans with coverage. But to achieve universal coverage would require either having the government provide it to everyone or forcing everyone to buy it. The first option, national health insurance in some form or other, would either bust the budget or cripple medical innovation, and possibly have both effects. Mandatory health insurance, meanwhile, would entail a governmental definition of a minimum package of benefits that insurance has to cover. Over time, that minimum package would grow more and more expensive as provider groups lobbied the government to include their services in the mandate.

The health-care debate has centered on the uninsured. That so many people do not have health insurance is a consequence of foolish government policies: regulations that raise the price of insurance, and a tax code that ensures that most people get their insurance through their employer. If you don’t work for a company that provides health insurance, you’re out of luck. People locked out of the insurance system still have access to health care. But they often end up in emergency rooms because they did not receive preventive care.

For most people, however, it is another aspect of our employer-based health-care system that causes the most trouble: the insecurity it creates. People worry that if they switch jobs, they will lose their health insurance. They worry that their company will cut back on health benefits. Universal coverage is not necessary to address these worries. Making it possible for individuals to own their health-insurance policies themselves, rather than getting them through their companies, would solve the problem. It would also reduce the political momentum behind socialized medicine.

Most universal-coverage plans accept the least rational features of our health-care system — its reliance on employer-based coverage and on “insurance” that covers routine expenses — and merely try to expand that system to cover more people. Republicans should go in a different direction, proposing market reforms that make insurance more affordable and portable. If such reforms are implemented, more people will have insurance.

Some people, especially young and healthy people, may choose not to buy health insurance even when it is cheaper. Contrary to popular belief, such people do not cause everyone else to pay much higher premiums. Forcing them to get insurance would, on the other hand, lead to a worse health-care system for everyone because it would necessitate so much more government intervention. So what should the government do about the holdouts? Leave them alone. It’s a free country.

A Little Bit of Trade Liberalization by the Trump Administration

As part of the 100 Day Action Plan on economic issues that the U.S. and China negotiated back in May, there was agreement by both sides to liberalize trade in a few areas.  It was a relatively minor set of issues, but nonetheless there was some real progress.  The Trump administration likes to tout exports, not imports, so in their remarks about the agreement, they tended to focus on areas of interest to U.S. exporters.  To provide some balance, I’m going to take it upon myself to tell everyone about some import liberalization the U.S. carried out as part of this agreement.  

In the agreement, the U.S. said it would start to allow imports of certain Chinese chicken products:

The United States and China are to resolve outstanding issues for the import of China origin cooked poultry to the United States as soon as possible, and after reaching consensus, the United States is to publish a proposed rule by July 16, 2017, at the latest, with the United States realizing China poultry exports as soon as possible.

This past week-end, a Washington Post story indicated that these imports are now underway:

The first known shipment of cooked chicken from China reached the United States last week, following a much-touted trade deal between the Trump administration and the Chinese government.

The Post article has a lot of fearmongering in it.  The online title is “The dark side of Trump’s much-hyped China trade deal: It could literally make you sick.”  And the article says, “consumer groups and former food-safety officials are warning that the chicken could pose a public health risk, arguing that China has made only minor progress in overhauling a food safety regime that produced melamine-laced infant formula and deadly dog biscuits.”

But before anyone panics, there is also this from the article:

Because cooking kills bacteria and viruses, including the one that causes bird flu, processed poultry is considered “tremendously safer” than raw chicken, said Richard Raymond, who served as undersecretary of agriculture for food safety from 2005 to 2008.

Anyway, the Chinese exporters will have a pretty big incentive to ensure the safety of the products:  If there are health and safety problems, consumers won’t buy them (and the U.S. government might restore the ban). 

It remains to be seen what is coming from the Trump administration on trade policy more generally.  But it’s nice to see a bit of import liberalization, especially given the protectionist rhetoric we keep hearing.

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In Just Six Minutes, Everything You Need to Know about Spending Caps

Back in April, I shared a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explained how poor nations can become rich nations by following the recipe of small government and free markets.

Now CF&P has released another video. Narrated by Yamila Feccia from Argentina, it succinctly explains - using both theory and evidence - why spending caps are the most prudent and effective way of achieving good fiscal results.

Ms. Feccia covers all the important issues, but here are five points that are worth emphasizing.

  1. Demographics - Almost all developed nations have major long-run fiscal problems because welfare states will implode because of aging populations and falling birthrates (Ponzi schemes need an ever-growing number of new people to stay afloat).
  2. Golden Rule - If government spending grows slower than the private sector, that reduces the relative burden of government spending (the underlying disease) and also reduces red ink (the symptom of the underlying disease).
  3. Success Stories - Simply stated, spending caps work. She lists the nations that have achieved very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint. She points out that the U.S. made a lot of fiscal progress when GOPers aggressively fought Obama. And she shares the details about the very successful constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland.
  4. Better than Balanced Budget Amendments or Anti-Deficit Rules - The video explains why policies that try to target red ink are not very effective, mostly because tax revenues are very volatile.
  5. Even International Bureaucracies Agree - Remarkably, the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice!) have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

I touch on some of these issues in one of my chapters in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. The entire chapter is worth reading, in my humble opinion, but I want to share an excerpt echoing Point #4 that I just shared from Ms. Feccia’s video.

There’s a very practical reason to focus on capping long-run spending rather than trying to balance the budget every year. Simply stated, the “business cycle” makes the latter very difficult. …when a recession occurs and revenues drop, a balanced-budget mandate requires politicians to make dramatic changes at a time when they are especially reluctant to either raise taxes or impose spending restraint. Then, when the economy is enjoying strong growth and producing lots of tax revenue, a balanced-budget requirement doesn’t impose much restraint on spending. All of which creates an unfortunate cycle. Politicians spend a lot of money during the good years, creating expectations of more and more money for various interest groups. When a recession occurs, the politicians suddenly have to slam on the brakes. But even if they actually cut spending, it is rarely reduced to the level it was when the economy began its upswing. Moreover, politicians often raise taxes as part of these efforts to comply with anti-deficit rules. When the recession ends and revenues begin to rise again, the process starts over—this time from a higher base of spending and with a bigger tax burden. Over the long run, these cycles create a ratchet effect, with the burden of government spending always reaching new plateaus.

It’s not that I want to belabor this point, but the bottom line is that it is very difficult to amend a country’s constitution (at least in the United States, but presumably in other nations as well).

So if there’s going to be a major campaign to put a fiscal rule in a constitution, then I think it should be one that actually achieves the goal. And whether people want to address the economically important goal of spending restraint or the symbolically important goal of fiscal balance, what should matter is that a spending cap is the effective way of getting there.