Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Partisanship and the TSA Controversy

Let me start by largely agreeing with Roger Cohen, who notes that the implementation of full body scanners at airports is irrational, and may be driven largely by the efforts of former government officials turned lobbyist (such as Michael Chertoff). Cohen doesn't fall into the trap of calling for profiling or for "Israeli-style" security, something that is completely unworkable in the U.S. system of air travel - and to many, far more objectionable - in favor of using actual intelligence to determine which passengers should be screened.

Let's be honest for a moment. Airport security screening as we know it was designed to stop hijackings in the classic sense - the opportunistic diversion of an aircraft to a different destination, or an attempt to hold hostage the passengers on an airplane. It was largely focused on obvious weapons, principally guns. That meant made it possible to screen passengers relatively quickly and painlessly. Most notably after the Lockerbie bombing, security was tightened in order to try to prevent bombs from being brought on to aircraft. Post-9/11, the effort to keep bombs off of airplanes has become increasingly zealous, to the point of the full body scanners backed up with frisks. Old style security isn't adequate for the types of bombs and weapons that the TSA is now seeking, because those bombs and weapons are non-metallic and may be prepared, sealed or carried in a manner that makes them very difficult to detect. There's a particular concern about PETN.

At the same time, the odds of a passenger actually carrying such a device are vanishingly small. In the ten years since 9/11, there have been a couple of attempts to get explosive devices disguised as clothing items onto airplanes - hence no shoes and scans of our underparts - and additional attempts to sneak explosives into air cargo - but not one such device has been intercepted by the TSA. And for 95+% of passengers, we have sufficient intelligence to know that they're not going to voluntarily hide such an explosive device in their clothing. That leaves the well-considered possibility that an explosive device may be slipped into their baggage, justifying better quality scanning of both checked and carry-on bags. And yes, there's the "action movie" scenario to consider - due to some sort of threat against your family, a terrorist coerces you into trying to smuggle a bomb onto a plane.

While Eugene Robinson suggests, quite correctly, that the principal reason for popular objection to the new security measures is that "I (or my grandmother) might get scanned", he suggests that's acceptable because terrorists are smart enough to identify people who won't fit a profile, and also that profiling is a greater threat to civil liberties than is the potential virtual strip search of anybody who wants to ride on an airplane. But when Robinson alludes to the 9/11 hijackers "not fitting" a profile because they were Saudi nationals, he's missing the point that we had ample intelligence to be concerned about those people. And it's been conceded that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber") should never have been allowed to board the aircraft he attempted to bomb - he got on due to an intelligence failure, got through security (albeit outside of the United States), and was foiled by his fellow passengers. So far there is no reason to believe that body scanners or enhanced pat downs would have detected his explosive device. So tell me again, how does scanning grandma make us safer? In what parallel universe is Bob Herbert's grandmother going to try to smuggle a bomb into an airplane? (And in that universe, why wouldn't she pick an airport or security line that doesn't have a body scanner?)

But the action movie scenario is exceptionally far-fetched, and creates multiple points of potential failure that don't exist when you find a Richard Reid, Jose Padilla or Abdulmutallab who is willing to actually carry the device onto the plane. First you have to get the device and a sufficient cohort of terrorists into the United States, then you have to find a mark who is traveling on the correct plane at the correct time, then you have to find a way to coerce your mark into trying to smuggle the bomb onto the plane, then you have to maintain that level of coercion for a long enough period that he attempts to board the plane, then you have to hope he doesn't call the police, tip off security, or act so nervous at the airport that security figures out something is wrong, then (assuming your plan is sufficient to get past security) you have to hope the device isn't detected by happenstance, then you have to hope he doesn't choose not to activate the device or deactivate it during the flight... Terrorists may sometimes appear to be stupid or inept, and luck has been involved in our avoiding catastrophe with the post-9/11 bombing plots, but there's a reason that none of these attempts have involved trying to coerce innocent, outside parties into carrying bombs onto planes - it would make the scheme more complicated, necessitate involving more people and in its implementation would all but doom the plan to failure.

A few days ago Ross Douthat wrote an editorial suggesting that the controversy over the new screening methods reflects partisanship and hypocrisy. At the surface level that seems reasonable, as our nation (like every other nation) suffers no shortage of either commodity. But Dan Larison provides an apt rebuttal:
On the whole, people on the left who are not troubled by the obnoxious TSA scans and pat-downs have not been terribly troubled about most of the other infringements on constitutional protections carried out over the past nine years, and most of the people on the right who have discovered “libertarian impulses” in this case have shown no signs of such impulses until the last year and a half. These impulses were not suppressed during the Bush years. They did not exist. Instead, they have materialized out of nowhere.
Larison also notes,
Even when some conservative hard-liners have objected to the TSA procedures, it is usually not because they have rediscovered their inherent distrust of the national security state’s power (which they never had!), but because these procedures have simply underscored for them how silly it is to screen all passengers at airports. The uproar over obnoxious TSA methods has presented them with a new opportunity to revisit their calls for profiling. At best, most of these protests are complaints against inconvenience rather than objections against intrusive government, and many of them do not reject authoritarian practices, but simply want to change the form of authoritarian practices. To that end, rhetoric about preserving American liberty is useful, but these are often the same people who have tended to justify every government encroachment on liberty and every expansion of the warfare and national security state in the name of “defending freedom.” This is all fitted into the larger Republican attack that Obama refuses to “name” the enemy, and that he has erred by no longer referring to the “war on terror.”
Larison notes that the alleged "partisan mindset" was absent from the recent vote to renew the PATRIOT Act.

But there's something else to consider, much to the consternation of the Glenn Greenwalds of the nation: Issue fatigue. Something becomes a hot issue for a while, is played out in the press, nothing changes, and time passes. While people may not forget the issue, it loses its urgency. And, as Larison notes, most people are happy to acquiesce to the subversion of the civil rights of others, so there's little price to be paid for an elected official who happily shreds the Constitution in the name of "the war on terror". When you couple that with the fear, which seems particularly high on the part of Democrats, of being held accountable if anything bad happens - of having to confront a "why didn't you order all air passengers to be strip searched and fluoroscoped before boarding"-type argument following a successful terrorist attack - that they would rather waste billions of taxpayer dollars chasing shadows (hey - it's not their money) than have an adult conversation about risks and costs.

The Liberal War on... Comic Books?

George Will is in a bit of a tizzy because "progressives" do crazy things like talking to scientists when they form opinions. He insists that this transforms progressivism into a "faith-based program" premised upon a "cult of expertise - an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform." To a degree he's describing a subset of liberalism from some decades ago, but not a type that actually worked from social science. He's describing the reactionary counterpart to, say, himself - who operates from the belief that social science is unnecessary, or should only be examined to the degree that it supports his own pre-existing beliefs, as he forges ahead with his own personal agenda.

Take for example the "welfare state" George Will despises. If you look at the facts, it is largely a success story. Many millions of people have received assistance when they were at the poverty line and subsequently were able to both rise out of poverty and reach self-sufficiency. There are a lot of people who are now successful, even wealthy, who were on food stamps as children. The typical recipient of welfare has historically been a single parent who, following a crisis such as divorce, needed a bit of financial help for a period of up to three years to get back on her feet. (Yes, it's usually but not always the mother). The downside, of course, is that a system that wasn't really designed but instead came together in an ad hoc manner also served to create cultures of dependency and poverty among long-term welfare recipients. It's not immediately clear what the alternatives are - after all, even with welfare reform we still provide support for families with minor children - but it is clear that you can't win the 'war on poverty' simply by giving people money (or benefits that can be used in a restricted manner, such as food stamps or a rent subsidy). Heck - we know that from what often follows a middle class windfall, such as an inheritance or lottery win.

Of course, this isn't a one-sided picture. As Will himself exemplifies, conservatives are sometimes proud in their contempt of science. Will's current column addresses social science, but he's previously embarrassed himself with his attacks on the hard sciences. Don't bore him with anything that may get in the way of his jerking knee. So we get "conservative" solutions to crime and poverty such as "three strikes" laws, "compassionate conservatism", "faith-based initiatives" where government money is passed through religious organizations rather than being used for the direct support of people in need, etc., and... they prove ineffective or even counter-productive. But, you know, whatever, right?

Recently, John Casey at The Nonsequitur compared the logical fallacies of Michael Gerson to those of George Will, touching on this column:
Our point here is that Gerson attempts to make the Willian hollow man move–"liberalism" is the key word usually, or "progressivism" (hey look it up in today's Post!). It basically goes like this. Mention the word "liberalism," and do not mention the words of any particular liberal–you're not dialoguing with them (that's critical)–and set up a hollow man. Then engage hollow man, showing hollow man argument to be foolish, liberals as a consequence to be lazy, dishonest thinkers, etc.
What does Will offer up as "evidence" that progressives are puritanical and censorious? Nothing, really - after providing a largely irrelevant and partial history of censorship of comic books, he quotes somebody who makes that bare claim.
The lawyer for the video-game industry warned the Supreme Court that "the land is awash" with contemporary versions of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), the crusader for censorship of indecency, as he spaciously defined it. "Today's crusaders," the lawyer said, "come less from the pulpit than from university social science departments, but their goals and tactics remain the same."
Will is apparently alluding to Schwarzenegger v Entertainment Merchants Ass'n, but I'm not sure where he found that quote - it doesn't appear to come from either the brief or oral argument. To the extent that he's alluding to the respondent's brief, although the brief does (as you might expect) cherry-pick past overstatements of the potential harm of new media to argue that we should assume that current criticism of videogames are overstated, which I admit to be an appealing argument despite (or perhaps because of) it's obviously fallacious nature (a mix of ad hominem tu quoque, guilt by association and appeal to ridicule), but how convenient for Mr. Will. "Somebody else says something I agree with so I can simply quote that person instead of providing actual evidence for my thesis or substantiating my hollow man argument."

The primary target of George Will's essay is the late Fredric Wertham. (Note to John Casey: George Will is apparently not afraid to "name names" when the targets of his criticisms are... dead, partially undermining the parenthetical portion of your suggestion that he only "nam[es] opponents who can respond (or whose words can be checked).") A big problem here is that Will doesn't actually present any evidence that this solitary, deceased figure upon which his argument is premised was in fact a "progressive". He appears to have been a Marxist. He does appear to have been concerned with the impact of modern culture on children. Or perhaps he doesn't believe that Wertham was a progressive, but it's enough that a book he wrote on the subject "was praised by the the progressive sociologist C. Wright Mills", also long deceased, with Will attaching the label "progressive" to his name apparently out of convenience - at some point he had to at least try to make his case, so why not find a guy who has been dead for almost fifty years, call him a progressive, say that he praised the book of another dead guy who doesn't appear to have been a progressive in any meaningful sense, and call it a day?

I did enjoy this part of Will's criticism of Wertham:
Wertham was especially alarmed about the one-third of comic books that were horror comics, but his disapproval was capacious: Superman, who gave short shrift to due process in his crime-fighting, was a crypto-fascist. As for Batman and Robin, the "homoerotic tendencies" were patent.
If Will were a thoughtful person, or even bothered to do slight research on his subject, he would likely have quickly discovered that over the past several decades comic books have devoted considerable amount of space to the tension between superhero action and vigilantism, a considerable evolution from the J. Jonah Jameson attacks on Spiderman. We're well past the early conceit of Superman being deputized so as to make him an all-powerful partner of law enforcement, and well into the era of the "Dark Knight", the brooding Batman with his acceptance that he's a vigilante and his oddly set internal compass defining the lines he's not willing to cross. As for the notion that Batman and Robin could be construed as in a homosexual relationship, some fifty-six years ago Wertham may have been among the first to say it out loud, but he was far from the last. The oft-referenced panel of that era:

Moving to modern times, it's hard to miss the Dynamic Duo as the inspiration for this parody:

But let's give Will his due.... Let's say that fifty-six years ago one "progressive" wrote a book critical of popular culture, suggesting that comic books have a negative influence on young people, and that another "progressive" stated that he liked the book. So what? My guess is that a lot of conservatives and religious leaders also endorsed Wertham's book. Certainly if you look to the subsequent history of censorship, book banning, and odd theories about which cartoon figures might be gay, you'll find far more examples coming from the political right than the political left. Even Will's penultimate reference to Anthony Comstock is to a man whose censoriousness appears to have been driven by his religious beliefs, and not even will purports him to have been a "progressive". Yes, if you limit your search to social science you'll find that it is largely produced by... social scientists. But is that really a surprise?

And you know what else? Sure, by today's standards the "disturbing" images from comic books of the early 1950's seem pretty tame, but that doesn't of itself mean that the images at issue from the current generation of video games are as tame, or will be viewed as innocuous in a half-century. Nor would it necessarily be good for society if the graphic, photo-realistic nature of future video game violence were so overwhelming that today's near photo-realistic images of death and mayhem seem innocuous. I am not presenting a slippery slope argument - I'm not favoring the banning of video games or arguing that if we don't take action now we'll see much worse stuff in the future - but I am observing the general trend and, yes, that trend suggests that video games will continue to become more photorealistic in their violence, and that the comparison to sixty-year-old comic books will be even less apt than Will's current effort.

In what should be a surprise to no one, in fact you can find examples of people who want to "protect the children" from the insidious effects of popular culture on all points of the political spectrum. Contrary to Will's argument that on the political left this is driven by social science research, in fact it's largely driven by a personal sense that certain aspects of popular culture cannot possibly be good for kids. If social science, in whole or in part, seems to back that up, obviously you will see advocates of child protection embrace those elements when they make their case for censorship. For goodness sake, the name at the top of the case to which Will alludes is that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose personal fortune was built on action movies, and who is presently the Republican Governor of California (although I'll duly note that the A.G. is a Democrat). Couldn't Will have at least dragged Tipper Gore or Joe Lieberman into his editorial, rather than carrying on about events from a half-century or more ago? Has he turned into Grandpa Simpson?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fritter and Waste

The New York Times is infamous for its articles expressing sympathy for people who have suffered the fall from being truly wealthy to being, say, merely upper middle class. I hardly know what to make of this one. The opening suggests that the subject of the article is living a modest, meager existence, which in fact appears to be true... for now. It then explains,
It is a far cry from the life that Mr. Martin and his family enjoyed until recently at their Adirondacks waterfront camp at Tupper Lake, N.Y. Their garage held three stylish cars, including a yellow Aston Martin; they owned three horses, one that cost $173,000; and Mr. Martin treated his wife, Kate, to a birthday weekend at the Waldorf-Astoria, with dinner at the “21” Club and a $7,000 mink coat.

That luxurious world was fueled by a check Mr. Martin received in 1998 for $14 million, his share of the $600 million sale of Martin Media, an outdoor advertising business begun by his father in California in the 1950s. After taxes, he kept about $10 million.
The article goes on to describe various indulgent and wasteful decisions that largely frittered away that inheritance, with an allusion to the housing market as if to suggest that this was simply a case of bad luck. Having poured more than half of the inheritance into building a luxury home, which is nonetheless subject to a seven figure mortgage, a prospective buyer has offered them barely more than they owe. But if they accept the offer and they're lucky they'll end up with six figures in the bank, which puts them in pretty rare company these days.

Did this heir never heard the admonition, "Don't spend the principal"? I know, that oversimplifies economic reality. Sometimes it's necessary and even sensible to spend part of the principal. But not on six figure cars and racehorses, and self-indulgent luxury housing that, even in a good market, could not reasonably be considered as an investment with a sale unlikely to result in massive losses. There is no reason a family of four cannot be set for life based on a $10 million after-tax windfall.

In seeing how people handle (and mishandle) money, I have come to the conclusion that if you redistributed all of the nation's wealth equally among its citizens, you would be back to the same, skewed wealth distribution within two generations, possibly one. Many among the wealthy would object to this "wealth redistribution" not because they reject that probable outcome, but because in their hearts they know that regaining their wealth and privilege would require luck, sacrifice, and possibly even hard work. That is, once wealth again approaches its current distribution, there would be a significant shift in who ended up wealthy and who ended up less privileged.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Two Accounts?

I know he's playing to the media, so we can assume he's oversimplifying his argument, but Tom Delay's lawyer doesn't convince me with this:
Mr. DeGuerin said Mr. DeLay would try to convince an appeals court that the money-laundering statute should never had been applied to the money swap — because the original donations were legal and also because the donations to the state candidates came out of a different account than the one in which the corporate donations were deposited.
After all, how could it possibly be money laundering if the people accused are using more than one bank account.

When You're Out Getting Coffee....

Don't dress as if you're out for lunch?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Airport Security (G)Randtanding

Paul Rand usually tries to portray himself as a different sort of politician - one who truly believes in individual responsibility, effective government, and who could cure much of what ails our system of government. But his position on TSA airport screening seems like run-of-the-mill politics - shifting responsibility for something that's unpopular from those who could actually do something, that is, people like Rand, to people who are trying to do their jobs as ordered.
My legislation is simple. It establishes that airport security screeners are not immune from any US law regarding physical contact with another person, making images of another person, or causing physical harm through the use of radiation-emitting machinery on another person. It means they are subject to the same laws as the rest of us.
No, really, it means that rather than addressing the TSA as an organization, or working through Congress to hold accountable those who created and implemented the policy, Rand is choosing an easy target and blasting away, knowing full well that his bill has no chance of being passed.

Rand does make some valid points although, as made, this one shares some of the same flaws as his legislation:
Imagine if the political elites in our country were forced to endure the same conditions at the airport as business travelers, families, senior citizens, and the rest of us. Perhaps this problem could be quickly resolved if every cabinet secretary, every member of Congress, and every department head in the Obama administration were forced to submit to the same degrading screening process as the people who pay their salaries.
I share Paul's sense that, if the nation's wealthiest and most politically powerful figures had to go through standard airport security, they would be insisting upon change. Does this mean that Rand will be including in his proposed legislation the requirement that "the political elites in our country" go through standard security screenings? Hm. He seems to have left that part out of his bill....

Rand's better point is this:
The incident of the so-called “underwear bomber” last Christmas is given as justification for the billions of dollars the federal government is spending on the new full-body imaging machines, but a Government Accountability Office study earlier this year concluded that had these scanners been in use they may not have detected the explosive material that was allegedly brought onto the airplane. Additionally, there have been recent press reports calling into question the accuracy and adequacy of these potentially dangerous machines.
Yes, there should be a demand that security measures be cost-effective, that we figure out if new technologies are safe and effective before spending $billions on implementation, and that those who made the decision to roll out the machines should be held accountable if the money proves to have been wasted. But alas, apparently there was insufficient space in Rand's proposed legislation to investigate the decisions involved or to hold the decision-makers responsible if their haste turns out to have produced massive waste.

Rand closes with dogma no less irresponsible than "security at any cost":
The solution to the need for security at US airports is not a government bureaucracy. The solution is to allow the private sector, preferably the airlines themselves, to provide for the security of their property.
So we are to disregard the history of private security at airports, and the massive holes it created that were supposed to be closed by the creation of the TSA, the professionalization of airport security and standardization of security screenings, and drink the Kool-Aid that "the private sector always does it better"? Paul and those who rolled out these new measures with no evidence to support their position represent two sides of the same coin.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Assumptions About Top Graduates and Education

The Washington Post editorializes that, as "Teacher quality is the single most important in-school determinant of student achievement", "this country... has to figure out how to attract its most accomplished graduates to teaching." Sorry, if by "most accomplished graduates" the Post means students who excel in fields outside of teaching, or the graduates of top colleges, it's not going to happen. With all due respect for "Teach for America", that organization focuses on shifting its corps members out of the classroom and into administration and policy jobs because, at least in my opinion, it recognizes that few are going to want to remain in classroom positions. Why? Because even among those who find that they want to pursue a career in education, those who are from top universities with six figures in student loan debt want to make more money than teachers are paid - they would have a great deal of difficulty servicing their debt on a standard teacher salary. And guess what? Our nation is not willing to pay teachers more money - in fact, the emphasis is on "taking away" - how can we "take away" their generous health benefits, retirement benefits, tenure, etc.

Further, I've been taught at the college level by some professors, grad students, and recent "brilliant" graduates who wheedled adjunct positions, and... brilliant as many of these people are, teaching is not something that comes naturally to all of them. Or most of them. And of those who like to teach, you often hear grousing about how college students aren't sufficiently interested in learning, aren't prepared, aren't motivated, don't contribute enough in class... These aren't people who are going to have fun teaching K-12, nor are K-12 students likely to find it at all fun to be in their classes. Teaching involves a lot more than a brilliant mind and mastery of subject matter.

Further, is it always sensible to get true subject matter experts to teach K-12 subjects? Let's be honest for a moment. You don't need a Ph.D. or even a masters degree to have ample subject matter knowledge to teach middle school math or English. It's not necessary to overstate the academic credentials required of teachers, nor is it necessary to suggest that the bulk of the nation's teachers aren't qualified to teach their subjects.

The Post sugests,
As the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reported this fall, fewer than one in four of U.S. teachers are coming from the top one-third of college graduates, while the world's top performing systems recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third.
Sure, part of that may be attributable to those other nations being willing to treat teachers better and accord them better pay and more respect. But I suspect if you look at both the quality of their colleges versus the quality of U.S. colleges, or the range of opportunities available to college graduates who want to stay in the nation, you'll find additional reasons why a significant subset of their top graduates go into teaching. Also, the nations referenced in the article to which the Post links are "Singapore, Finland, and South Korea" - relatively culturally homogeneous nations with positive cultural attitudes toward education. As that article notes, there's reason to doubt the measures applied to determine if, in fact, the claim is true.

There's nothing wrong with wanting top performing college students to become K-12 teachers. Perhaps improved compensation would improve recruiting numbers among those who have desire to teach - I don't think we're going to get teacher salaries up to the level that we truly lure top graduates away from the professional fields. But I think it's a mistake to assume that achievement in college translates into teaching aptitude, or that merely because the top third of graduates tend to focus on other avocations there aren't large numbers of qualified, competent, capable teachers emerging from our nation's colleges.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Anger at Junk Touching

There are three reasons for objecting to the new TSA security measures, one of which I consider to have substantial merit, one of which I don't believe has been adequately addressed, and the last of which, at least to me, isn't particularly compelling.

First, there's the question of whether the screening enhancements actually do anything to improve airline security and, if so, whether they can be justified on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. As of yet the TSA has proved wholly unprepared to substantiate any material benefit from the new screening methods, let alone a benefit that would justify the cost. (For that matter, the TSA hasn't presented much evidence on the cost-benefit front for existing technology, and its placement of air passengers into long lines as they wait for security creates a glaring vulnerability.) When you challenge scanners and frisks on a cost-benefit basis,
It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting that the government will provide a rational justification for either an expenditure of billions of dollars or an intrusion on the privacy of its citizens. Put both together, and people have every right to object when the government is unprepared to demonstrate a meaningful security benefit.

The second issue is whether the new body scanners are safe. With due respect to their exposing passengers to no more radiation than the additional exposure they might experience on a typical air flight, I believe people have a right to be concerned about additional exposure, particularly if they are prone to skin cancer or if they're concerned about their (or their children's) lifetime exposure. "The FDA says it's okay" isn't very comforting - the FDA was asked in general terms about radiation levels, not body scanners. Let's see the science, and some scientific reassurance of how we can have certainty now, given that we don't have a lot of experience with exposure to this type of radiation.

Even if we assume that the machines are safe when they come out of the box, how well will the machines be maintained, tested and operated to ensure that radiation levels remain at factory levels? After all, problems of radiation overexposure can happen in a clinical setting. Finally, in the unlikely event that the TSA actually requests that it evaluate the scanners, why should I believe the FDA wouldn't succumb to political pressure, particularly in light of its recent decision-making?

The third argument is, in essence, "This makes me uncomfortable." I'll grant, some people have more cause than others to feel uncomfortable. Some people cannot go through the scanner, or have prosthetics or medical devices such as insulin pumps that will result in a frisk even if they go through the scanner. But if the cost-benefit case is made, the scanners are safe, the TSA continues with its belated plan to minimize what is displayed to the technician in the scanning booth, and concerns over the alleged selection of "cuties" for more intensive screening are adequately addressed, it's difficult to see how this level of intrusion isn't reasonable. Not at all in the immature "shut up and take it" sense espoused by the L.A. Times, but in the sense that the case will truly have been made that this makes air travel materially safer. It's to TSA's continuing discredit that it is unprepared to make its case, apparently on the assumption that the L.A. Times sentiment would carry the day.

There's a variant of the discomfort argument, "No one should have to suffer this type of indignity." Except as many have pointed out, people do suffer this type of indignity quite regularly, most notably minority males in "high crime" areas who may be stopped, frisked and released with some regularity - and with a very low rate of detection of weapons or other contraband.

The authoritarians who argue "shut up and take it" bother me because, as usual, they are happy to surrender the rights of others in the name of security without even asking that the state provide evidence that security will be improved. The latest example I've found is from Richard Adams who is willing to include himself among those whose junk gets touched, but on the basis of terrible reasoning:
Personally, I'd like to take a flight knowing that the plane is less likely to be blown up or hijacked and rammed into a building full of people. Alternatively, I'd like to be able to work in a tall building in New York City, Washington DC or even London without having a 747 flown into it.

Don't want to be scanned in an airport security line? Really? Easy: don't fly. Nobody is holding a gun to your head forcing you to take that flight to Aruba. Although if security is relaxed because of the idiotic uproar of recent days, then you might get a gun held to your head on-board the flight instead.
Everybody would like to know that "the plane is less likely to be blown up or hijacked", but that doesn't mean that every security measure taken will in fact make that possibility less likely. And with due respect to arguing from fear, if a gun could get onto a plane despite existing security measures, these new measures aren't at all likely to improve the situation.
It's bizarre that a nation that has largely rolled over and acquiesced in allowing its government to tap its phones and internet traffic – the Patriot act, a far graver assault on civil liberties – should get so exercised about this instead.
First, many people have objected to the "security state" developments in the U.K. and U.S., but "shut up and take it" arguments from people like Adams have drowned them out. Second, the use of excessive security measures in one context does not justify the use of excessive security measures in a second context. Third, as I've previously indicated, a lot of the acquiescence toward security excesses in other contexts is that it's invisible - it's either happening to other people, or it's happening in such a manner that you don't even know your privacy has been encroached. It may well be hypocritical to acquiesce to intrusions in other contexts while objecting this time, but being a hypocrite doesn't make you wrong.

Further, if the contexts are analogous and Adams truly believes that the Patriot Act represents government overreach that's being replicated in this context, he should be arguing against the overreach. If he doesn't believe the situations are analogous, he's reaching for an example he knows is irrelevant merely so he can sneer that those who disagree with him are hypocrites.

While Adams makes a valid point about the inadequacies of racial profiling, he continues in relation to Charles Krauthammer's recent column,
The scariest part of Krauthammer's piece is this: "This has nothing to do with safety - 95% of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary." Which means that five per cent are necessary, according to Krauthammer. One in 20? In that case, security isn't anywhere near tight enough. More to the point, deterrence is a major purpose of airport security. How many people it catches is immaterial.
Adams' first mistake is his treatment of Krauthammer's only the fly statistics as being somehow scientifically determined. His second mistake is an interpretation of what Krauthammer is stating in relation to the 5% of passengers he sees as needing more intensive screening. Krauthammer's argument is that TSA could easily exclude 95% of passengers from the category of "even slightly probable to engage in an act of violence, terrorism or hijacking on an airplane," and that the TSA should thus focus its efforts at identifying and intensely screening the remaining 5%. He's not arguing that 5% of airline passengers are dangerous - not even close.

Let's say you're looking for a needle in a haystack. You propose using a metal detector to try to identify the haystacks that might contain a metal object, and searching those haystacks first. Somebody else howls, "No - we need to put all of the hay from all of the stacks into one giant stack before we even can even begin to look." You may not find the needle the first way, assuming there even is one, but the second way creates an enormous inefficiency. Krauthammer's point, in essence, is that we're better off trying to identify the 5% of the "haystack" that is at all likely to pose a threat rather than putting everybody into that "haystack" - an approach that creates a great deal of inefficiency, generates an astronomical number of "false positives" (bins and bins full of 3.2 oz tubes of gel, nail files, etc.) and may not do much to actually improve security. Yes, it's possible to dispute whether Krauthammer has the right approach to identifying the people who pose a threat - racial profiling won't do it - but is it not in fact the case that the vast majority of air travelers pose no risk to the air flight, and that we can reasonably screen 95% of passengers into a "very low risk" category for purposes of pre-flight security screenings?

Adams' argument that airport security is about deterrence, not about how many suspected terrorists are actually intercepted, begs the question. He's in essence arguing that we can justify the expenditure of billions of dollars and the intrusion of privacy of people who pose no threat simply to put on a good show. Let's not even consider whether the new measures have a greater deterrent effect than the status quo. Let's not bring up the question of whether focusing intensive screening on the small subset of passengers who might actually pose a threat to an air flight would have equal or greater deterrence. Think of the body scans and frisks as a glorious form of performance art.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nobody Wants to Touch Charles Krauthammer's Junk

Charles Krauthammer, predicable as always, doesn't think it's fair that the TSA might waste its time touching his junk, should he fly the friendly skies:
That riff [about Asians in security lines from the film "Up in the Air"] is a crowd-pleaser because everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness. Nowhere do more people meekly acquiesce to more useless inconvenience and needless indignity for less purpose. Wizened seniors strain to untie their shoes; beltless salesmen struggle comically to hold up their pants; 3-year-olds scream while being searched insanely for explosives - when everyone, everyone, knows that none of these people is a threat to anyone
There is, of course, some truth to this. When you read about TSA putting a small child through an intensive search every time he flies because his name matches that of somebody associated with a terrorist group, you know something is wrong with the system. But Krauthammer misses the point of searching a three-year-old - it's not because the three-year-old may be smuggling something dangerous, but because a three-year-old could be exploited by an adult. Krauthammer's indignance arises from his presupposition that all we really need to do is screen Arabs and people with Muslim names and let everybody else walk through - instant safety. Except that wouldn't catch a Richard Reid. Or a Jose Padilla. Or a John Walker Lindh.

Nor, for that matter, are Muslims the only terrorists in the world - far from it. Nor, for that matter, is terrorism the only reason to hijack a plane. We didn't roll out airport security due to fear that somebody would try to blow up a plane or use it as a weapon. Early hijackings involved diverting a plane from its intended destination to a new location picked by the hijacker or holding the passengers for ransom. Krauthammer's old enough that he should easily remember, back in the day, how many planes were hijacked to Cuba. And he should be able to recall that the hijackers weren't Muslim.

The idea that racial profiling would be effective is absurd. As the examples previously given indicate, the terrorists already know who gets additional attention and, when possible, try to put somebody on a plane who is as far as possible outside of the profile. If it weren't for the fact that human beings tend to become more stubborn and less interested in dying for a cause as they get older, al-Qaeda and similar outfits probably would be trying to recruit grandmothers into the fold, preferably those with nice, European sounding names. The type of profiling Krauthammer favors is overinclusive - most Arabs and Muslims pose no threat on an aircraft - and underinclusive - many people who do pose a threat, including some known terrorists and al-Qaeda sympathizers, would not fall into the profile, and when available they're the ones most likely to be used by al-Qaeda in a plot against an airplane. And let's not buy into a delusion that just because our present focus is on al-Qaeda, we couldn't be targeted by a different group with a different profile. The Tamil Tigers weren't Muslim, aren't Arab, and used female suicide bombers - and fortunately they didn't target the U.S., but they should serve as a reminder that you shouldn't pretend either that no non-Muslim threat exists or that the status quo will never change.

Am I overanalyzing? Adam Serwer is more succinct:
Conservatives like Krauthammer aren't angry that the TSA is infringing on individual liberty, just that it's infringing on their individual liberty.
In fairness to Krauthammer, though, travelers with physical limitations such as his - people who cannot stand unassisted in the scanner - can apparently look forward to having their junk touched every time they travel.

Stupid Arguments In Favor of the Security State

The Washington Post and L.A. Times have both provided stupid arguments on the question of "full body scans" and the frisking of passengers at airports. First up, the L.A. Times:
Shut up and be scanned
Really, that's their headline and its the gist of their argument - shut up and do as you're told. They attempt to dress it up a bit:
The new scans might not be foolproof, but they'll spot more dangerous materials than the old detectors and keep passengers safer.
Everybody agrees that the scans and pat-downs are not foolproof - not even close. Everybody in fact knows how to fool them. The issue then, is whether they make us appreciably safer and... despite the whopping 130 items taken from passengers as a result of the new machines, there is actually no evidence that the machines would make us safer. There's no evidence that body scanning would have identified the "underwear bomber".

Yes, I recognize that there are people who claim that Abdulmutallab would probably have been identified by a body scan, but here's the thing: We have his underwear bomb. We can dress somebody up in a facsimile, put them through the scanner, and find out for sure. So why hasn't that been done as a demonstration of the need for scans and their effectiveness at detecting threats that might otherwise be missed? Either we have to accept what we've been told so far - the DHS rushed into the purchase of these machines without actually trying to assess whether they improved security - or we can choose to be cynical and assume that "underwear bombs" were tested and the scans failed. Seriously, it would be a cheap and easy demonstration. If you were advocating for scanners, why wouldn't you be all over the news with scans proving that they would have stopped Abdulmutallab? Unless, that is, you know they wouldn't.

In short arguing that people should, in essence, shut up and take on the assumption that the machines make us "safer" is an irresponsible argument, contemptuous both of individual rights and freedoms and of what is involved in actually improving security. Which brings us to the Washington Post which, after reminding us that al-Qaeda remains interested in "targeting commercial flights",
No technology is foolproof; intelligence, traditional law enforcement and tips will continue to play leading roles in disrupting attacks. But the government would be irresponsible not to employ all reasonable means - and all available technology - to protect the lives of innocent people.
The Post assumes that body scanners are a "reasonable means" of detecting threats on the basis of... what? Just like the L.A. Times, they apparently don't need any evidence that the scanners add to security. You can argue that the assumption is not unreasonable, but even if we weren't talking about billions of dollars we should be looking at how much difference the scanners make and performing a cost-benefit analysis as compared to other security measures.

I believe TSA Director John Pistole when he states that a frisk (he still prefers the term pat-down, but let's be more accurate) would have detected Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb - and let's further assume that it would have been sufficient to distinguish the bomb from an adult diaper. As I previously noted he provides no comparable assurance that a body scan would have detected the bomb. The reasonable inference is that we're spending $billions on technology that, in specific relation to the threat that inspired the quick roll-out of body scanners, is probably inferior to a frisk. So maybe everybody should be frisked? Or scanned and frisked?

And that "all available technology" argument - how about making passengers walk through a giant fluoroscope - a virtual cavity search? Sure, it's more radiation than a backscatter device, but why should that matter? All this talk about balancing cost and effectiveness, considering whether other approaches might be better, wondering if we're wasting billions of dollars - talk, talk, talk. We're against a determined enemy so "shut up and be scanned", right?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Balancing Security Against the Threat

As the air traveling public recoils at the choice between being scanned by a TSA strip search machine or having an enhanced pat-down (a/k/a a frisk), the TSA has attempted to defend its latest measures:
TSA Administrator John Pistole defended the system today, saying that all passengers want to know that their fellow fliers have been properly screened for weapons like box cutters, liquid explosives or a shoe or underwear bomb.

"Everybody wants the best possible security," Pistole said on NBC's "Today" show. "The question is, What's that blend or balance, if you will, between security, safety and privacy? While we remain sensitive to people with those concerns, the system we have set up addresses those concerns and provides the best possible security."
Except, as we know, neither a frisk nor a strip search scan will stop a determined terrorist. Neither will detect contraband stored inside the body, and there's no reason to believe that terrorists haven't figured that out.

If public reaction so far is a measure, TSA should infer that it has gone past the tipping point - people are willing to take off their shoes, take medical equipment and computers out of their luggage for the x-ray machine, be patted down, wanded, and otherwise inconvenienced to eliminate most contraband from flights, but don't like the idea of being electronically strip searched or frisked. They would apparently accept the 1:10,000,000 or so chance of being hijacked without this "enhancement" over the 1:10,100,000 chance that they enjoy with this added security. And I may be overstating the statistical difference.

Thomas Friedman wrote a while ago that we have been lucky not to have been hit by another terrorist attack - and he's correct.
Meanwhile, we need to focus on the things we can control. For starters, we’re going to have to learn to live with more insecurity. Terrorism is awful, but it is not yet an existential threat. And we can’t let our response to it be to shut down our open society or tear ourselves apart with recriminations. Like the Israelis and Brits, we need to keep up our guard, learn from our mistakes, but also learn to bury our dead and move on.
President Obama recently made a statement that should have been treated as an opportunity to have an adult conversation about the risks of terrorism and how we might respond.
I said very early on, as a Senator and continue to believe, as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack. We will do everything we can to prevent it. but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it, and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.
Instead, Republican hacks started to shriek about how the President wasn't committed to protecting us from terrorism. With no offense intended, I don't believe for a second that Pistole is trying to achieve balance. He's working in an environment in which it is presumed that no mistakes are acceptable, and thus that it's reasonable to invest $billions in technology that most people find objectionable in order to provide a very small overall improvement in security.
Pistole, who said Wednesday that the scanners and new pat-downs already had found "dozens and dozens of artfully concealed items" noted that Muslim women and members of other religions that dictate the kind of clothing they must wear can request to receive a pat-down in private or have a witness present, among other procedures.
I wish we had a better sense of what type of contraband we're talking about or how it posed a threat. Instead we hear about "dozens and dozens" of items - which could mean 48 - with no indication that any of them posed an actual threat to air security.

We are now in an era in which you can shut down an airport by accidentally going through the wrong door, or when a security guard accidentally leaves a door unattended. Jeffrey Goldberg's nightmare scenario - somebody setting off a bomb in a line for airport security - would, as he indicates, immediately shut down air travel across the nation. Meanwhile, with present policies for responding to an in-the-air incident, it's not clear why a hijacker would choose to try to get on an airplane over taking Goldberg's approach, at least if they're already in the U.S.

Something that might have helped in this debate, if you want to call it that, would be evidence that the TSA has rigorously tested and compared various methods of screening to demonstrate that a determined passenger is less likely to be able to smuggle contraband on board if scanned or frisked. As with every prior "enhancement", the TSA measure seems to be largely reactive - "somebody almost got away with X, so let's implement security measure Y to prevent it from happening again" - without any real thought to actual risk, cost, or efficacy. If TSA could say, "We challenged 1,000 FBI agents to get through security lines with dangerous contraband, and caught 99% of them using scanners versus 90% with frisks and 66% with existing technology", the case for the scanners would be far more compelling than claiming, after-the-fact, that the $billions spent have resulted in the interception of "dozens and dozens" of forbidden items with no claim that any of those items in fact posed a danger to a flight or other passengers.

Update: Adam Serwer reports the lack of testing and due diligence exercised by the TSA before making this multi-$billion investment:
The current scanners were being evaluated at a time when, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report, the TSA had neither implemented a cost-benefit analysis of its passenger-screening technologies nor established "performance measures that assess how deployed technologies have reduced or mitigated risk." As of today, the GAO says the TSA still hasn't done either, despite having deployed the scanners nationwide. A TSA spokesman defended the machines by saying it had done an analysis concluding that the machines offered an ability to detect nonmetallic threats that could "only otherwise be obtained by increasing manpower to conduct physical pat-down searches." However, a March GAO report found that it "remains unclear" whether the body scanners would have been able to detect the type of explosive that underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab attempted to employ. Once again, we've traded liberty for security without even having a good idea of how much security we're really getting.
And yet we're to believe that this is part of an effort to balance safety against privacy?

(Serwer and, more bluntly, Mike at C&F, have pointed out that much of the reaction to airport scanners and frisks falls into the category of "This type of thing is only supposed to happen to other people".)

Update 2: Apparently "dozens and dozens" means "130", again with no indication that any items found posed a threat to an airplane or other passengers. The biggest problem at this point appears to be a very high rate of false positives, meaning passengers who are carrying nothing inappropriate can agree to the virtual strip search and still have to go through a frisk.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

National Sales Taxes, Carts and Horses

Paul Krugman recognizes that a national sales tax or VAT would be a regressive tax, but explains why he's "soft on sales taxes":
Why? Because we know that countries with strong social safety nets generally rely a lot on consumption taxes...
I suspect you'll find that those nations fall into two categories: First, nations that don't have the type of political divisions that would result in state or provincial sales taxes in addition to the national tax, and states that instituted the taxes considerably after they created their strong social safety nets. A national sales tax to support a benefit you have and like is a much easier sell than the idea that you'll get a better social safety net if you approve the tax in advance - it's like playing a substantial fee to play "Let's Make a Deal", but with no guarantee that there's a prize behind any of the doors.
More generally, it does seem that countries with strong welfare states have less progressive tax systems than those with weak safety nets; see this, from the Luxembourg Income Study (pdf).
This actually makes sense, in that you're paying for your health insurance (and paid family leave, and other similar benefits) through a tax instead of through a contribution that for most workers, although not a tax, is deducted from your paycheck in the same manner as a tax. Frankly, that's the way it should be - the goal here should be to create good public policy leading to better health outcomes, not to redistribute wealth or create a new freebie that in fact inflates the budget. In terms of whether the other nations' tax regimes are truly more regressive, it would be interesting to see how the numbers looked if you ran the numbers treating employee contributions to their health insurance premiums as a tax.

Also, we can have a more regressive tax system - what Republicans euphemistically call a "flatter, fairer income tax" - without implementing a national sales tax.

The "Debt-Reduction Sales Tax"

Fareed Zakaria recently ribbed Darrell Issa over Issa's use of euphemisms, suggesting that politicians' use of euphemisms is cowardly, and that those who use them are either lying or at best trying to hide the truth. For some reason this came to mind when I read about the lastest "budget task force" proposal from Pete Dominici Alice Rivlin, and its "debt-reduction sales tax".
We would dramatically simplify the tax system, establishing individual tax rates of 15 and 27 percent (from the current high of 35), cutting the corporate tax rate to 27 percent (from 35 today), ending most deductions and credits while simplifying the rest, and ensuring that nearly 90 million households no longer have to file returns. To reduce the debt, we would supplement our spending cuts with a 6.5 percent "debt-reduction sales tax."
I tracked down a longer version of the report and, although it found room for four pages of photos and bios of the contributors, it omitted any hard numbers.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe if we kept income taxes 0.5% higher - that is, reducing them to 15.5% and 27.5% (they would eliminate intermediate brackets) the tax revenue raised would be substantially greater than that which would be raised through a new national sales tax. So why not keep things simple and impose a 0.5% or even a 1% "deficit reduction surtax" on income taxes until the deficit disappears? Or, more honestly, just set those tax brackets at the slightly higher rate because it's not as if we're really going to eliminate the national debt, is it....

Seriously, if they want to make a policy case for why we should create a new, regressive national sales tax system, imposing significant costs of tax collection and remittance on the nation's businesses, rather than setting the income tax at a slightly higher level, let them make it. Their use of a euphemism suggests either that they can't make a compelling case for the sales tax, or that they don't want to approach the issue honestly. I personally see no sign of honesty in their choice of euphemism because, contrary to what its name implies, I simply don't see that such a tax will ever go away.

Doesn't TPM Usually Make Fun of Headlines Like This

Apparently, winning election as Minority Leader by a 3:1 margin is a "Bad Sign for Pelosi" - if she were forced into a do-over in a parallel universe against a different opponent, it seems she might not have won.

Can You Imagine Working For This Guy?

Imagine yourself as a staff member trying to keep Rep. Louie Gohmert on track.
I've been greatly concerned with the hypocrisy of this administration telling Israel, "Just let Palestinians build illegal settlements and take over areas that are not theirs. Just let 'em take over." And I thought, "How hypocritical for our U.S. administration to tell Israel, 'just let people take over areas of your country they're not authorized to takeover,' cause we would never allow that here in the U.S."

Which brings me to the only good thing about violent illegal alien drug smugglers taking over American soil: At least we're not hypocritical anymore when we tell Israel just to let people take over land that's not theirs. Because now this administration can say, "Look, Israel, we're doing it here. We're letting people take over American soil that they shouldn't. So you can do it, too."
You: [whisper, whisper, whisper]

Gohmert: (quietly) Really? The settlements are Israeli? Pushed onto Indian Reserv...what did you say? Reservations? And they weren't grateful for the reservations? But you're with me about illegal alien drug dealers, right...?

Now what? Perhaps:
You may have misheard part of what I just said.
With most politicians' gaffes, you can quip about their having to take their foot out of their mouth. But if it makes it harder for him to continue talking, maybe Gohmert is better of keeping it there.

Update: I didn't want to prematurely jump to conclusions, but with every new thing I learn about Gohmert a phrase ending "... as a sack of hammers" seems applicable:

Starting with the fact that corporations don't pay taxes on their gross revenues....

Monday, November 15, 2010

Balancing the Budget - The Home Game

When I followed a link to the NYTimes "you fix the budget" gimmick, I was disappointed. Not that I expected it to be a realistic exercise, but it was so full of forced and often false choices that I rolled my eyes and left the page. It's like one of those telephone opinion polls when they ask, "If you had this partial piece of information, would it make you more or less likely to vote for candidate X" - If you can believe it, they actually want you to answer "More" or "Less" instead of "Yes".

By way of example, how will cutting earmarks in fact cut the budget, when they relate primarily to how money is to be spent, not whether it will be spent? And Putting the canard of "malpractice reform" right at the top of the list for health care reform, of course, sends entirely the wrong signal about the usefulness of the exercise to anybody who knows a whit about malpractice litigation (as opposed to having internalized insurance industry propaganda). What about fraud and waste, either of which alone is a much larger cost than the entire cost of malpractice litigation? Also, why not means test Medicare - where is the option for increased copays and deductibles for seniors with substantial means, or even continuing to charge wealthy seniors a premium? Is that seriously too complex a possibility to be factored in? We must tax, cut, but not actually reform? (And those examples barely touch the surface.)

Mythago doesn't post to her blog very often these days but when she does, boy can she get to the point.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

But Somebody Does Care About the Deficit

Following up on Paul Krugman's observation that balancing the budget is a low priority for most people, it's reasonable to note that there's every indication that Krugman himself supports a balanced budget. He pictures that being achieved through estate taxes and a national sales tax.

I'm personally not opposed to estate taxes, although ideally we would see a lower tax rate with fewer chances at avoidance and evasion - fewer ways to avoid the tax, resulting in a significantly lower tax rate while maintaining revenues. Why don't I get into a tizzy about "death taxes"? Because, as they say, "You can't take it with you." Given the choice with paying more taxes while I'm alive or paying some percentage of my estate to the taxman after I die, I'm going with door number two.

I'm not a huge fan of a national sales tax. No, actually, I think it's a bad idea. Even assuming the tax were structured such that the wealthy could not easily avoid it, what do you believe will happen when a future Congress is deciding which tax to raise to help balance the budget? Capital gains, inuring largely to the wealthy? Income taxes, primarily hitting middle and upper SES Americans? Or a national sales tax, hitting everybody but most affecting those who don't have the luxury of saving part, most or all of their income - that is, I find it difficult to believe that the most regressive tax won't be raised first. And I also find it difficult to believe that a significant national sales tax won't affect consumer behavior, largely to the detriment of small and local consumer-oriented businesses.

Krugman speaks of a "modest VAT" - I can see a VAT starting out that way, but I simply cannot imagine it staying "modest". I don't believe that a VAT is necessary to balance the budget, now or in the future, and thus would just as soon not put it on the table.

"Nobody Cares" is Not an Excuse for Inaction

Paul Krugman observes that for most votes, regardless of party affiliation, a balanced budget is low on their list of priorities. With due respect to the many deficiencies of the tentative Bowles-Simpson proposal, and to the fact that some issues are presently more pressing than balancing the budget, it actually would be both a good thing and a sign of political maturity to start addressing how to achieve long-term balance. The alternative approach, seemingly preferred by the electorate and politicians alike, is to wait for a crisis. Even if it's not imminent, though, it's difficult to imagine a crisis that compels the balancing of the budget that won't be at least as bad as the financial industry collapse.

International Perspectives on the President

Although this type of claim by David Ignatius smacks of Thomas Friedman's "taxi drivers who happen to echo my exact beliefs", it's worth examining:
What the world sees, I'm afraid, is a weak U.S. president who isn't solving domestic economic problems, let alone global ones. But that's more a symptom than a cause. What's happening at a deeper level is a breakdown of the U.S. political system's ability to find consensus and make decisions. Washington doesn't work, as critics from the Tea Party right to the progressive left keep insisting.
In my younger years when I've lived abroad, and in my subsequent travels, I've heard a lot of discussion of the U.S. political system by those in other countries. As should go without saying, most people from other nations have a significantly worse understanding of how our government works than do the people of our nation - and... um, we (collectively) don't know a whole lot.

Media coverage of U.S. political issues often focuses on the President, and often approaches him as if his power is somewhere between that of a prime minister and a monarch, setting an agenda for his country and largely able to push it through. When the President wants something and it doesn't happen, yes, the international perspective may be that he looks weak - but that may in fact be a more accurate perception than the one Ignatius apparently prefers. Further, if you're from a nation with a parliamentary system, more so if it has a tradition of strong party unity, it's difficult to understand how somebody who you presume to be the actual (as opposed to de facto) leader of his party can't get them to follow his agenda.

Ignatius also appears to make the mistake of overstating the importance of U.S. politics to people of other nations and how much time they spend thinking about the U.S. president, perhaps because during his travels that's all he talks about and thus most of what he hears about. More importantly, he disregards the fact that popular impressions of the President in other nations are largely irrelevant, and can be just as media-driven, event-driven and fickle as political opinions in this nation. Does Ignatius know that the international view of Reagan was largely not flattering - doddering and not very intelligent? That G.W. was widely viewed internationally as an incompetent moron? I doubt that either would have been reelected had the election been held internationally. Does it matter? If so, why?

With Victory Comes Responsibility

For decades, although voting Democratic for the President and, more often than not, for the governor, Michigan has been a Republican-dominated state. Governor Granholm had a Democratic majority in the State House for only the past two years. Even with that, Senate Republicans stymied any meaningful Democratic initiatives. Assuming there were any....

One of the frustrations of living in Michigan is seeing the dearth of ideas for "fixing" the state's problems. Things started to go south before many of the state's sitting politicians were born, and have been on a serious downward track for decades, but it often seems like there's been no change in state "policy" - wait long enough and things will get better on their own. Yes, Michigan is attempting to subsidize its way into being a new home for TV and movie production, but even if that effort succeeds it will do little for the state's economy as a whole.

Now, with the 2010 election, Michigan has a Republican governor, a Republican House, a Republican Senate with a supermajority, and will have a Republican-dominated state Supreme Court. A friend lamented this state of affairs, and the inevitable gerrymandering that will soon occur to try to cement a Republican advantage into the state's electoral districts. And yes, if you're a Democrat, I can't say there's much to cheer in any of that.

At the same time, victory - and victory of a magnitude that it can really be called ownership - carries responsibility. I know that many Congressional Republicans hope to shirk that responsibility, sabotaging the Senate and the White House such that the government seems ineffective and they can gain additional power in the next election. But Michigan's Republican Party has no scapegoats, and is pretty close to maximum power. If it does not deliver, it is safe to say that it cannot deliver.

If the recession continues, or if Michigan remains in recession while the rest of the nation recovers, it will be perfectly reasonable for voters to hold the state's Republican Party responsible. After all, unless they're going to throw up their hands and admit that they have no solutions to the state's problems, they are implicitly responsible. And if they do make such an admission I'm not sure that it helps them, as it would effectively be an admission of incompetence. That is to say, in two, four, six years... however long it takes... if the Republicans don't deliver something they're likely to experience what G.W. Bush and the Republicans went through during the 2006 and 2008 elections. Gerrymandering may be enough to get some of their seats back if things don't immediately get better (as we just saw, nationally, with Democrats losing most Republican-leaning seats won during the prior two elections) but it won't save a party from a backlash against its ineffectiveness.

My friend asked, "But what if the Republicans succeed?" Um... well, then, no backlash. But I'll take a vibrant state economy over either the ineffective governance of the past decade, and certainly over the type of yo-yo elections that effectively just held the President responsible for his predecessor's incompetence. (Which isn't to say that, particularly in retrospect, there aren't a lot of things the President and the Democrats, particularly a self-serving, party-sabotaging faction in the Senate, couldn't have done differently to potentially avoid or diminish this outcome.) In simple terms, when you control everything there's nobody for voters to blame but you.

Opposition to Globalization is Not That Sophisticated

Robert Lighthizer suggests that the Tea Party is opposed to free trade, and that its opposition could create problems for the political parties.
At first glance, the Tea Party’s position may seem contradictory: its small-government, pro-business views usually go hand in hand with free trade. But if you consider the dominant themes underlying its agenda, it makes sense that the movement would be wary about free-trade policies. For starters, Tea Partyers are frustrated with Washington, and that includes its failure to make free trade work for America. Our trade deficit in manufactured goods was about $4.3 trillion during the last decade, and the country lost some 5.6 million manufacturing jobs.
The anti-free trade sentiments of the Tea Party movement, and similar movements that came before it, is focused on that last word alone - jobs. Anti-free trade, anti-globalization movements gain steam when people perceive that "They're taking our jobs". (The same thing is presently inspiring heightened opposition to immigration, and the rash of demands for strong action against illegal immigration.) When jobs are plentiful and pay reasonably well, most people have better things to worry about - and, frankly, would just as soon continue to be able to buy cheap imported junk at the local Walmart.

If the economy and job market recover, free trade and globalization will again become a background issue, important to some voters but not at a level that's going to much concern our nation's political leaders. And that's before considering the amount of money and influence behind globalization. If the economy and job market remain bad then, yes, popular opposition is likely to continue and perhaps grow. That could create problems for the political parties, but I still wouldn't expect any anti-globalization legislation. The powerful interests that want globalization haven't gone away, and we already have sufficient dependence on globalized markets that "unringing the bell" would both be very complicated and take many, many years. To the extent that there is "a fundamental reorientation of our country’s attitude toward trade and globalization," I expect it to be rhetorical - politicians making anti-globalization statements when running for office, but continuing with business as usual after being elected.

Friday, November 12, 2010

How Congress Can Avoid Cutting Taxes on the Wealthy

I'm among those unsurprised by the skeptical reaction to the Democratic Party's desire to cave on the issue of tax-cuts for the wealthiest Americans. After all, if the Party wanted to extend the cuts for everybody but people earning $250K+ (or, as was suggested in the alternate, raising that threshold to a higher amount, perhaps even $1mm), it could have done so before the election and have attempted to use the issue to distinguish itself from the Republicans.1 The Republicans would have been in the position of having to filibuster a tax cut for most Americans in the name of the rich, or would have had to allow the bill to pass thereby ending the chance of additional tax relief for the rich until the next election. I've already speculated as to why that did not occur - too many Democrats similarly prioritized tax cuts for the rich. Michael Tomasky shares a similar perspective, first noting that many people in the $250K income range aren't necessarily "rich" as the term is generally understood, but more to the point:
Pelosi didn't force that vote for one simple reason: it would have lost. Why? Because enough Democrats would have voted with the GOP to make it fail. These Democrats were afraid of being called tax increasers, even if it was only on the top 2%. But a lot of them also simply believe in the Bush tax cuts as a matter of policy.
But in the wake of Nancy Pelosi's stance against extending tax cuts for the rich, Tomasky wonders what sort of leverage could be applied to get a bill through Congress. That would be the estate tax.

Before the election the Democrats were eager to compromise on the estate tax, and to set very high exemptions for estates before the tax would kick in. If anybody was advocating for allowing the estate tax cuts to simply expire, neither the media nor anybody else in Congress was paying attention.2 Any bill that partially extended the Bush tax cuts - a process better described as canceling in part the tax increases scheduled by George W. Bush and the Republicans then in control of Congress - would have resulted in an estate tax applicable to only a tiny number of gargantuan estates. I suspect Pelosi is planning a game of chicken involving the estate tax. Why is that gambit politically viable now when it wasn't prior to the election? Why might it work even though pretty much all Democrats would oppose reversion? Because if nothing is done during the lame duck session, along with the tax increases Bush and the Republicans scheduled for ordinary income, the estate tax reverts to its pre-2001 levels.

1. An anonymous Chief of Staff for a Democratic Senator writes, "If we want low and middle-income Americans to think we don't have the spine to fight for them, then how are we going to convince them to vote for us?" With all due respect for whomever his boss may be, I assume the question is rhetorical.

2. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) lectures his colleagues on balancing the budget,
"If some of us have to sacrifice a political career to get this country back on track, then so be it."
Am I wrong in inferring from his statement that he's speaking exclusively of others - that is, his position is safe and will likely be strengthened by the positions he's taking?

Congress Fears the People? Please....

A few days ago CWD commented,
I still haven't figured out why everyone gives the Fed a pass when they are deliberately setting a policy that hurts a substantial number of Americans (anyone living on a fixed income/relying on savings and investments... like retirees). Don't get me wrong, there is an argument for the Fed's position, but no one even bothers acknowledging that the issue exits and that the costs should be considered...
The underlying point is that when interest rates are at or near zero, people who are relying upon their investments to help pay for their retirements have to either cut their spending or dig into their equity in an amount greater than they anticipated. The long-term consequences of overspending equity are self-evident, and are magnified when you're no longer earning wages.

The easy response to that is, "Who's paying attention"? The population that is largely identified as comprising the Tea Party movement, upper middle class, mostly white, largely male, would be a population you might expect to be attuned to the issue. But even if we assume that some tried to raise the issue, the supposedly Tea Party-friendly media - Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. - ignored it. Glenn Beck was on the case well in advance, of course, but in a different way. He was paid handsomely to shill for overpriced gold coins as an investment. Yes, you too can undermine your retirement while lining his pockets.

Here's something that Matt Yglesias proposed as a serious argument for why we have this massive, poorly publicized subsidy of the financial industry that's hurting pretty much every wage earner who is trying to save for retirement, and pretty much every senior who is living in part on retirement assets affected by the return on those investments. You're asked to imagine that you're a public official who is terrified of letting even a single bank fail (presumably here we mean one of the handful of large banks, because small banks are allowed to fail with some regularity). You're presented with two choices:
One choice is that you force the banks in question to accept capital injections from the public sector. This will “bail out” the bank and save it as an institution. It’s also obviously better for the bank’s owners than the alternative of letting the bank fail. But for the owners it’s also not ideal since it means the value of their shares is being diluted. Indeed, if raising extra capital were a bailout of the shareholders they would have avoided this problem long ago by simply raising capital from private investors. But their reluctance to do this has helped bring us to the crisis point. They’d rather get public equity than fail, but they’d rather avoid getting public equity.
If the issue is that a bank will fail and wipe out its investors, but we're to accept that the bank could simply raise money from capital investors, it's going to choose not to fail. The bank only needs to be bailed out if its management was so incompetent that it chose bankruptcy over raising money, or if it's anticipating that the government will shovel money in its direction if it claims that it's going to otherwise fail. So we're in the position of being asked to bail out banks that are either led by incompetents who have destroyed the business they run, or to pay hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to banks run by people who planned to loot the treasury in exactly that fashion.

Further, if we look back at when we did inject money into those banks, the arrangements were made in a manner that protected shareholders and bondholders, even though that meant at best minimizing the return to taxpayers who were saving the banks from failure and potentially losing part or all of that money. So no matter what the public does, the bank and its investors come out just fine, thank you very much. And let's gloss over the fact that the taxpayer was asked in some cases to inject money meeting or exceeding the market capitalization of the financial institutions at issue - we can talk all we want about private investors, but if a private investor comes up with that type of money you can expect that when the transaction is done they'll own their investment, lock, stock and barrel.
A different option is to refuse to give “the banks” extra money. Instead you perform stress tests and proclaim that the banks are secure, implicitly signaling the existence of government guarantee of their operations. You have the Federal Reserve start paying interest on banks’ excess reserves, giving them a zero risk profitable investment parking cash with the Fed. Then you hunker down and wait for the regulatory forbearance to allow the profit-making process to generate sufficient capital to resolve the situation.
Wait - I have an idea! Why not do both - in fact, we did do both. Seriously, why is this being presented as a choice of options?

It's argued that the second approach, probably better described as "phase two" of the financial industry bailout, will take longer to work, prolong the suffering on Main Street, and is "wildly more favorable to the people who owned the banks, in a way that creates a massive problem of injustice" - that third point being what CWD noticed. But it's argued that this second approach may seem preferable because you don't need to get approval from Congress and the public would view it as "superior to a soft-on-bankers 'bailout'". Well, whose fault is it that this isn't being repeatedly and accurately characterized on by the media as a bailout?

Tim Fernholz at Tapped characterizes this argument as follows:
The long and short of it is that we ended up choosing a less optimal policy, because people were so angry about bailouts, and because Congress - and the incentives of political actors therein - drastically increased the challenges of implementing a better policy.
Except as is patent from the description Yglesias provides for the first option, the anger is justified. We made oversized investments in financial institutions that were designed to deliver undersized returns (or obscene losses), to bank managers whom Yglesias tells us could have prevented the need for a bailout had they been willing to dilute the value of their shares, and who forged ahead in apparent anticipation that they would be able to use a doomsday scenario to get that public bailout money. Now we have a disguised bailout in the form of low interest rates for those banks, because they still prefer to be undercapitalized than to dilute the value of their shares. I'm sorry, but if the private money is there to be invested as Yglesias suggests and Fernholz accepts, this is not a case of taxpayer anger causing Congress to fear making the better of the two choices - because there's a third choice that would also keep the banks from failing. It's another round of banker greed, incompetence, or both causing the economy to languish while taxpayers pick up the tab.

It's interesting, isn't it, that wiping out shareholder value was not such a big deal when the auto industry was involved. How Congress and the President had no problem demanding that, in return for being bailed out, auto makers come up with plans for long-term sustainability in down markets. How they insisted that worker wages be slashed and contracts rewritten. And, whatever people may have thought about the bailout itself, all of that was largely popular. But when it involved the oversized compensation packages and absurd "retention bonuses" of the people whose greed and/or incompetence caused the economic collapse, we were lectured on "the sanctity of contracts".

The reason we have a backdoor bailout is not because Congress is afraid of a direct bailout due to popular anger. It's because it knows that it can't get away with another "no strings attached" - no, that's too charitable - another open giveaway of taxpayer money without making some demands on the financial industry. So sure, you can get me to blame Congress for not approaching this in a way that brings a faster, more cost-effective and fairer end to the bailouts - but let's put the rest of the blame where it belongs, on the financial industry itself. It's fear of their wrath, not mine, that cows Congress.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Big Bucks in School Privatization (f/k/a Charter Schools)

It's been interesting to me to see the intense interest that some very wealth Americans have been giving to the charter school movement. Some (e.g., Bill Gates) appear to be genuinely interested in school reform, others (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg) seem interested in improving their public image, and many may see it as a fashionable social activity. But when hedge fund managers start sniffing around the perimeter you know that there has to be big money involved... somehow.

Well, here's an example of the big money.
Wealthy investors and major banks have been making windfall profits by using a little-known federal tax break to finance new charter-school construction.

The program, the New Markets Tax Credit, is so lucrative that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.
The article explains how some charter schools have seen their rent skyrocket, but with little interest from regulators or state auditors. And the charters aren't making much noise about it, even as rent doubles or triples over a couple of years because.... at least according to the article, it appears that they're in bed with the companies that are building the properties and leasing them to the schools.
In Albany, which boasts the state's highest percentage of charter school enrollments, a nonprofit called the Brighter Choice Foundation has employed the New Markets Tax Credit to arrange private financing for five of the city's nine charter schools.

But many of those same schools are now straining to pay escalating rents, which are going toward the debt service that Brighter Choice incurred during construction.

The Henry Johnson Charter School, for example, saw the rent for its 31,000-square-foot building skyrocket from $170,000 in 2008 to $560,000 last year.

The Albany Community School's rent jumped from $195,000 to $350,000.

Green Tech High Charter School rents went from $443,000 to $487,000....

And key officers of Albany's charter school boards are themselves board members, employees or former employees of the Brighter Choice Foundation or its affiliates.

Christian Bender, for example, executive director of the foundation, is chairman or vice chairman of four of the Albany charters.
So is this catching anybody's attention?
No wonder JPMorgan Chase announced this week it was creating a new $325 million pool to invest in charter schools and take advantage of the New Markets Tax Credit.
Who else is seeing opportunity here?
The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. today announced the formation of a $25 million charter school facility that will finance the development of approximately 16 charter schools over the next two years.

The Goldman Sachs Charter School Loan Facility will be capitalized by Goldman Sachs and credit-enhanced by funds awarded by the US Department of Education to LISC, which will also manage the facility and its lending program. LISC currently supports 130 charter schools nationwide. This facility will be focused on the greater New York City and New Jersey areas. In total, the fund is expected to leverage approximately $100 million in additional capital to support high-quality charter school facilities.
How might more money be squeezed out of charter schools? How about allowing them to operate as for-profit businesses (in the model of the University of Phoenix and Kaplan)? The AEI's on the case:
The Obama administration has been particularly guilty on this count, enthusiastically championing charter-school expansion even as its Department of Education radiates hostility toward for-profits in K-12 and higher education. The result is entrenched funding arrangements, policies, and political currents that stifle for-profit operators — organizations such as National Heritage Academies, which operates 67 charter schools in eight states, or EdisonLearning, which operates schools and provides supplemental education services across the United States and overseas. If choice-based reform is to yield more than boutique solutions, for-profits are a critical piece of the puzzle.
Meanwhile, even as they admit that charter schools are effectively doing nothing to improve school performance, with the help of their mainstream media stenographers they hope to create a funding structure that shifts more money to charters and out of the public system - in a manner that appears designed to benefit large commercial ventures:
A real marketplace in education, he suggests, probably wouldn’t fund schools directly at all. It would only fund students, tying a school’s budget to the number of children seeking to enroll. If there are 150 applicants for a charter school, they should all bring their funding with them — and take it away from the failing schools they’re trying to escape.
A "real marketplace" in which you defund the public school in favor of a for-profit charter school that doesn't actually get better results, but pays a lot of rent to the property investors who sit on its board, operates a large number of schools so that it can justify CEO-sized salaries to its management, doesn't offer amenities such as music, gym, art, libraries (all a "waste of money"), avoids public oversight, and leaves special education to what's left of the public school system. And if the public becomes concerned that you're scrapping the public system in favor of something that may not be better - may in fact be worse - and that these corporations are interested not only in the inner city but in extending their reach into successful school districts? Lecture them that results don't matter - what counts is "freedom of choice". Oops, sorry Ross - I mean being "Free to Choose".

As I've indicates, my initial hope for the charter school movement was that it would bring about more choice for parents. I would like to see charters offer parents a real choice of educational model with less focus on standardized testing. But with few exceptions the charter school movement has not lived up to that promise and, sorry, exceptions do not prove the rule. The charter schools that show the most promise in the inner city receive grants and other subsidies that expand their budgets well beyond the standard level of funding per pupil, while advancing an educational model that would be quickly and firmly rejected by most middle class parents. We're to extrapolate from that limited success to believe that if those charters not only operated without that additional grant money, but were operated by corporations that were also pulling out 10-20% of the school's money to satisfy investors and shareholders on top of oversized rents, we would be happy with the results? Why stop there? Let's push the argument right over the top.
And a world where more parents and kids have access to a fraction of the educational choices available to, say, Sasha and Malia Obama seems a like a better world by definition, no matter what happens to America’s average S.A.T. score.
First, while it's nice to pretend that we're talking about average SAT scores, the larger discussion of charter schools involves bringing children up to grade level in math and reading. We're not talking about a trade-off between "history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition" and "test scores" that a typical parent would find acceptable. If you're lagging two or three years behind grade level, it's absurd to pretend you can simultaneously hold an advantage in mathematics, literature and composition. Second, the school attended by the President's children is not in any way average, nor would the public have any interest in funding a school at @$35,000 per student per year. If it were, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Third, the school is a non-profit. As are most of the private schools to which those with the money to choose presently send their children.

Stop and think about that for a minute. If you're wealthy, your kids don't go to the University of Phoenix, and your kids certainly won't be attending the "charter school" equivalent of the University of Phoenix. It's quaint to pretend that if only corporations are permitted to pull profits out of the per-student fees allocated to charters we'll suddenly have thousands of schools across the country offering rich curricula and pedagogical choices. But if you look at the for-profit college industry you can see what you actually get - bottom feeders. No kidding, the advocates of that system are encouraging people to ignore test scores.

As for the conceit that "costs of educating kids who took vouchers were lower than for kids who stayed in the existing public schools", well, no kidding. Because public schools offer libraries (and librarians), sports programs, gymnasiums, school cafeterias, and other amenities, the cost of providing "alternative schools" for students with behavioral problems, as well as bearing the cost of medical support and special education services for special needs students even if those students are in charter schools and private schools. The money paid to charters reflects the fact that they don't offer that full set of services - not even close.

Yes, by all means, come up with systems that create true choice for parents, and let them pick a program that suits their child. But let's not pretend that the monied interests who are hungrily eyeing public school dollars are any more interested in education than private prisons are in reducing recidivism. Those who truly want to help charters offer a wider set of choices can follow the model of Clonlara, and develop curricula and teaching methods that can be employed by interested charter schools. If they do a good job, they should even be able to sell such a curriculum at a profit. And those who truly want to help kids can do so through smaller nonprofits that remain answerable to parents and the community.

Let's not offer up the elementary school equivalent of the University of Phoenix, and defend it by claiming that we're giving its students "a fraction of the educational choices available to" parents who can afford the elementary school equivalent of Yale.