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Atlas Bugged II: Is There an NSA Mass Location Tracking Program?

Written by Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

Way back in 2011—when “Snowden” was just a quiescent indie band from Atlanta—I wrote two posts at the Cato Institute’s blog trying to suss out what the “secret law” of the Patriot Act that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others were raising alarms about might involve: “Atlas Bugged” and “Stalking the Secret Patriot Act.” Based on what seemed like an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence—which I won’t try to summarize here—I speculated that the government was likely engaged in some kind of large scale program of location tracking, involving the use of the Patriot Act’s Section 215 to bulk collect cell phone location records for data mining purposes.

Washington Post: Democrats Are Abandoning Obamacare

From The Washington Post’s The Fix:

Moderate Democrats are quitting on Obamacare

By Scott Clement, Published: July 23 at 9:00 am

The landmark health-reform law passed in 2010 has never been very popular and always highly partisan, but a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that a group of once loyal Democrats has been steadily turning against Obamacare: Democrats who are ideologically moderate  or conservative.

Just after the law was passed in 2010, fully 74 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats supported the federal law making changes to the health-care system. But just 46 percent express support in the new poll, down 11 points in the past year. Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have continued to support the law at very high levels – 78 percent in the latest survey. Among the public at large, 42 percent support and 49 percent oppose the law, retreating from an even split at 47 percent apiece last July.

2013-07-22 hcare among Democrats

US-EU Trade Talks: Don’t Forget about the Tariffs

Written by Simon Lester, Trade Policy Analyst for the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

In the context of the recently launced US-EU free trade talks (formally, the “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership,” or TTIP), commentators have noted that tariffs between the US and EU are low, and thus the key part of the talks will deal with so-called regulatory barriers to trade.  An article in Inside U.S. Trade observes: “Overall, the U.S. average tariff rate is 3.5 percent, although the average tariff rate on goods that the EU actually shipped to the U.S. last year was even lower, at 1.2 percent, … .”

But these average figures mask some significant “tariff peaks.”  There are lots of individual tariff rates, so if many are low or zero, that makes the average figure fairly low; nonetheless, there are plenty of high tariffs still out there.  The same article points out some US and EU tariff rates that may come up during the negotiations.  Here is the US:

U.S. light trucks tariff of 25 percent; a tariff on wool sweaters of 16 percent; a tariff on sardines of 20 percent; a tariff on tuna of 35 percent; and a tariff on leather at 20 percent

Here is the EU:

applied tariffs on honey of 17.3 percent; carrots at 13.6 percent; potatoes at 14.4 percent; strawberries at 20.8 percent; lemons at 12.8 percent, beef at 12 percent; and lamb at 12 percent

And all of those tariffs add up:

Surprised by the Latest Privacy Invasion? Don’t Be

Written by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

You shouldn’t be surprised by the revelation that police departments across the country are gathering data about innocent people’s movements.

Using automated scanners, law enforcement agencies across the country have amassed millions of digital records on the location and movement of every vehicle with a license plate, according to a study published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Affixed to police cars, bridges or buildings, the scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and note their location, uploading that information into police databases. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely.

The ACLU study is here.

You should be outraged that your tax dollars are going into surveillance that undercuts your privacy, but don’t be surprised. Why not? Because Cato told you so.

Here’s text from a study we published nearly nine years ago, Understanding Privacy—and the Real Threats to It:

Partisanship Plays a Larger Role in Support for “ObamaCare” than Opposition to It

Written by Michael F. Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll provides a fascinating look into how factors other than the content of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act affect people’s views of that law.

Kaiser asked respondents their views of the PPACA, alternately describing it as “ObamaCare” and “the health reform law.” Here’s what happened:

  • Among Republicans, calling it “ObamaCare” caused the share reporting an unfavorable view to rise from 76 percent to 86 percent (+10 percentage points), with no discernible change in the share reporting a favorable view.
  • Among independents, calling it “ObamaCare” caused the share reporting an unfavorable view to rise from 43 percent to 52 percent (+9 percentage points), with no discernible change in the share reporting a favorable view.
  • Among Democrats, calling it “ObamaCare” produced no discernible change in the share reporting an unfavorable view, but caused the share reporting a favorable view to rise from 58 percent to 73 percent (+15 percentage points).

A few conclusions can be drawn.

Farm Bill: Is Today’s GOP to the Left of Bush?

Written by Chris Edwards, Director of Tax Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

It’s widely accepted that George W. Bush was a big-spending president. He was a social conservative, but not a fiscal one. To his credit, however, even Bush recognized how wasteful and unfair farm subsidies are, and he vetoed the last major farm bill in 2008.

That bill “would needlessly expand the size and scope of government,” he said in his veto message. Unfortunately, Congress overrode Bush’s veto and the 2008 farm bill became law at an estimated taxpayer cost of $640 billion over 10 years.

Congress is moving ahead on another farm bill this year, with the Senate recently passing its version and the House to take up a bill shortly. The Senate-passed bill would spend $955 billion over 10 years—49 percent more than the 2008 bill that was too expensive even for Bush.

Four-fifths of the spending in this year’s farm bill is for food stamps, yet 18 Republican senators still voted for it. Perhaps those members hadn’t noticed that the cost of food stamps has quadrupled over the last decade. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed that federal government debt has doubled since 2008. To members who see themselves as fiscal conservatives, it should be obvious that a less expensive bill this time around is appropriate, rather than one that is far more expensive.

Washington Foolishly Tilts Towards War in Syria

Written by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

The bitterest fights tend to be civil wars. Today, Syria is going through such a brutal bloodletting.

The administration reportedly has decided to provide arms to Syria’s insurgents. It’s a mistake.

This kind of messy conflict is precisely the sort in which Washington should avoid. Despite the end of the Cold War, the U.S. armed services have spent much of the last quarter century engaged in combat. At the very moment Washington should be pursuing a policy of peace, policymakers are preparing to join a civil war in which America’s security is not involved, other nations have much more at stake, many of the “good” guys in fact are bad, and there would be no easy exit.

Military action should not be a matter of choice, just another policy option. Americans should have something fundamental at stake before their government calls them to arms.

No such interest exists in Syria.

Intervention against Damascus means war. Some activists imagine that Washington need only wave its hand and President Bashar Assad would depart. However, weapons shipments are not going to oust a regime which has survived two years of combat. Intervening ineffectively could cost lives and credibility while ensuring heavier future involvement.

There is no serious security rationale for war. Damascus has not attacked or threatened to attack America or an American ally. America’s nearby friends, Israel and Turkey, are capable of defending themselves.

Another concern is the conflict spilling over Syria’s borders. But this does not warrant U.S. intervention. Maintaining geopolitical stability rarely approaches a vital interest justifying war.

Why The NSA Collecting Your Phone Records Is A Problem

Written by Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

Privacy advocates and surveillance experts have suspected for years that the government was using an expansive interpretation of the Patriot Act’s §215 “business record” authority to collect bulk communications records indiscriminately. We now have confirmation in the form of a secret order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to Verizon — and legislators are saying that such orders have been routinely served on phone carriers for at least seven years. (It seems likely that similar requests are being served on Internet providers — increasingly the same companies that provide us with wireless phone services).

Some stress that what is being collected is “just metadata”—a phrase I’m confident you’ll never see a computer scientist or data analyst use. Metadata—the transactional records of information about phone and Internet communications, as opposed to their content—can be incredibly revealing, as the recent story about the acquisition of Associated Press phone logs underscores. Those records, as AP head Gary Pruitt complained, provide a comprehensive map of reporters’ activities, telling those who know how to look what stories journalists are working on and who their confidential sources are. Metadata can reveal what Websites you read, who you communicate with, which political or religious groups you’re affiliated with, even your physical location.

Congratulations to the Free Traders of the 112th Congress

Written by K. William Watson, trade policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Herbert A Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.

Do you remember the 112th Congress—the one that repeatedly almost shut down the government while still managing to raise taxes and spending? It turns out they did some interesting things with trade policy. The votes recorded in Cato’s congressional trade votes database have been counted, tabulated, and analyzed, and the results are mixed. The predictable legislative outcome was that with a Republican House and Democratic Senate, the 112th Congress furthered the bipartisan establishment trade policy of reciprocal tariff reduction and unilateral subsidy expansion.

The more interesting revelations come from looking at the voting records of individual members. Rather than simply noting whether a policy would promote or diminish free trade or would increase or decrease America’s engagement in the global economy, Cato’s Free Trade, Free Markets methodology distinguishes between barriers (like tariffs and quotas) and subsidies (like loan guarantees, tax credits, and price supports). This distinction enables us to place members within a two-dimensional matrix.

Should Murderers and Rapists Get Food Stamps?

Written by Tad DeHaven, a budget analyst at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato At Liberty.

Last week, the Senate accepted by unanimous consent an amendment to the pending farm bill that would ban convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (a.k.a. food stamps). Introduced by Louisiana Republican David Vitter, the amendment has received condemnation from the left and at least one round of applause on the right.

My initial reaction was “A few undesirables will lose a taxpayer-financed handout—so what?” But the more I thought about the amendment, the less I cared for it. For starters, the amendment appears to be politically motivated. Vote against it and a Senator can expect to see a negative campaign add from his or her next opponent. That’s probably why the amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent instead of being formally voted on in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

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