Photo ID is Obsolete and Unnecessary. Facial Recognition Technology Makes it Dangerous.

In mid-May, San Francisco, California became the first American city to ban use of facial recognition surveillance technology by its police department and other city agencies. That’s a wise and ethical policy, as a July 7 piece at the Washington Post proves.

Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.

To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.

They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.

The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.

Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.

The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.

There are ways to do that without a photo.  Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.

Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.

In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.

The answer to that question is “none.”

It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.

Since law enforcement has continuously  proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.

Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.

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Marianne Williamson is Right About American Elections

Self-help guru Marianne Williamson isn’t likely to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, despite having probably served the American public more ably than any of her opponents (among other things, her Project Angel Food delivers millions of meals to the seriously ill).  Good works aside, she’s a little too “New Age,”  spiritual, and individualist/voluntarist-oriented for a population  increasingly viewing coercive government as its living and unquestionable God.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to her, though, especially when she points out major flaws in the system. At a July 3 campaign event in New  Hampshire, Williamson discussed the “illusion of choice” in American elections, comparing them to Iran’s, where “you can vote for whoever you want, among the people that they tell you it’s OK to vote for.”

Afterward, Williamson backed off just a hair, calling her remarks “a cautionary tale, not a direct analogy.” She shouldn’t have.

Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, includes 290 representatives. Of those seats, 216 are split between three political parties, 66 are held by independents, and five are reserved for religious minorities.

Of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, 434 are split between two political parties, with a lone independent holding the 435th. The US Senate is slightly more diverse — 98 of its seats are split between the two “major” parties, with a whopping two independents.

Yes, “separation of church and state” is preferable to theocracy,  but our two “major” parties, the Democrats and Republicans, exemplify an iron grip on rule by party establishments that even Iran can’t match.

How do they do it? Why aren’t there any current members of Congress from the Libertarian, Green, or other “third parties?” And why are independent and “third party” members of Congress a rarity since early in the 20th century? Two reasons.

One is that unlike the world’s parliamentary democracies, which use “proportional representation” measures to accord smaller parties at least token representation, the US uses single-member districts and first-past-the-post voting. In each district there’s one winner and everyone else loses.

The second is that, since the late 1800s, US states have used government-printed ballots and “ballot access” laws to make it increasingly expensive (and sometimes completely impossible) for “third party” candidates to even appear on voters’ ballots.

According to Nicholas J. Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee, the Libertarian Party spent more than half a million dollars just getting on ballots for 2016 (not including state party and candidate spending) .

Not campaigning. Just getting their names in front of voters on election day. In some states, no amount of money is enough to get past Republican and Democratic election officials (or, in court, Republican and Democratic judges). Campaigning gets done with what’s left over.

That’s how every election cycle goes. The “major” parties don’t want a fair fight, and they’ve structured American elections to ensure they never face one.

The only way to force a fair fight is for “third party” candidates to start winning the UN-fair fights. Your votes (and donations and party participation) can make that happen.

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North Korea Nuclear Freeze? Finally, a Realistic Proposal

As President Donald Trump met with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un for the third time at the end of June — becoming the first sitting US president to visit North Korea — the New York Times ran a piece suggesting the appearance of a new option on the proverbial  table: A negotiated “nuclear freeze” rather than just another cycle of fruitless US demands for  “de-nuclearization.”

The response from National Security Advisor John Bolton came swiftly via Twitter:  “Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”

If Bolton and the National Security Council HAVEN’T discussed the possibility,  they haven’t been doing their jobs.  And if anyone’s being “boxed in” by having the idea called to public attention, it’s not Trump, it’s Bolton, who prefers saber-rattling theatrics for his hawkish friends on Capitol Hill to actually safeguarding the US.

There are really only two viable paths forward for improved US-North Korea relations.

One is for the US to start minding its own business: Withdraw US troops from and end all defense guarantees to South Korea, unilaterally lift sanctions on the North, and let the region work out its own problems without further American interference. Highly unlikely, at least for the moment.

The other is a “nuclear freeze” under which Kim keeps his existing nuclear arsenal but refrains from building more weapons, in return for sanctions relief and the US getting, and staying, out of the way of improving relations and closer ties between Pyongyang and Seoul.

That second option is eminently doable. It would cost the US  nothing of real value. In fact, rightly handled, it would immediately reduce US “defense” outlays — a peace dividend, if we can keep the Military-Industrial Complex’s grubby hands off it.

Any US policy toward North Korea must account for two facts:

First, nuclear powers don’t give up their nukes. Only one, South Africa, has ever done so, and that regime didn’t face external foes on any large scale. North Korea has effectively been at war since the late 19th century, first against Japanese occupation, then against the South and the US from 1950 until now. Expecting Kim Jong-un to give up the ultimate deterrent to future invasions — by the US, by the South, by Japan, or even by current allies like China and Russia — is simply unrealistic. It’s not negotiable. The US knows it’s not negotiable. The only reason to even make the demand is to intentionally keep relations hostile.

Secondly, in the case of the United States, Kim has historical evidence as to what giving up his nukes might portend. He saw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi deposed and killed after they gave up their (never successful) nuclear weapons efforts. Kim would presumably prefer to remain alive and in charge.

A nuclear freeze agreement would not, in and of itself, produce peace. But it would be a giant step in that direction.

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The Sons of Liberty Flag: How a Group of American Patriots Led the Colonies to Rebellion

The origins of the Sons of Liberty flag go back to 1765, when a secretive group of patriots known as “the Loyal Nine” was formed – the group behind the original Boston Tea Party. The flag was then known as “the Rebellious Stripes” and it was banned by the British king, the highest endorsement the Crown could give.

The Sons of Liberty: “No Taxation Without Representation”

The Sons of Liberty were perhaps the most radical group of American patriots during the pre-Revolutionary period, but the true Sons of Liberty had a relatively short lifespan. They were formed in response to the Stamp Act of 1765 and disbanded when the Act was repealed. Still, the name lived on as a popular brand name for the biggest firebrands of the American Revolution.

Many of the members of the true Sons of Liberty are American legends who need no introduction. Samuel Adams. John Hancock. Patrick Henry. Paul Revere. Even Benedict Arnold counted himself among their number. It’s unclear whether the original Sons of Liberty were a clandestine organization with an official membership or just a rallying point for anyone who opposed the Stamp Act. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The unified identity of opposition to the Crown was the organization, whether it was official or not.

The motto of the Sons of Liberty was a simple phrase known to virtually every American: “No taxation without representation.” While its origins are largely shrouded in mystery and lacking firm documentation, many experts agree that, to the extent that it was an organization with members, it was founded by none other than famous rabble rouser Samuel Adams.

The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Rise of the Sons

The Stamp Act of 1765 existed for the purpose of bankrolling British troops in the New World. Colonists resisted the Stamp Act not because the taxes themselves were intolerable, but because they believed their rights as British subjects were being violated by taxation without representation.

The first branch was founded in Boston in August 1765, followed by a satellite in New York in November of the same year. December saw communication between groups in Connecticut and New York. In January of 1766, Boston and New York linked up. By March, Providence was in communication with New Hampshire, Newport, and New York. Later that year in March, groups were set up in Maryland, New Jersey, and as far south as Virginia.

Continue reading The Sons of Liberty Flag: How a Group of American Patriots Led the Colonies to Rebellion at Ammo.com.

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What (Other) Economists Think About Democrats’ Education Plans

A recent NPR article, titled “What Economists Think About Democrats’ New Education Proposals,” caught my eye. FEE, after all, is an economic education organization that looks at how free markets and individual liberty lead to more progress, greater prosperity, and better outcomes for all than any other social or economic system ever created. I was curious what these NPR-interviewed economists might say about the Democratic presidential candidates’ education plans, which involve funneling more money into a government system of mass compulsory schooling.

What’s the Plan?

According to the article, Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris wants to spend $315 billion of taxpayer money to lift teacher salaries. Joe Biden wants to increase federal spending to low-income schools with teacher pay hikes. Bernie Sanders wants to impose price controls for teacher salaries, imposing a pay floor of $60,000 for incoming teachers. To its credit, the NPR article explains that by both domestic and international standards, American teachers are already well compensated and enjoy above-average employee benefits.

But that’s not enough, according to one of the economists interviewed. Eric Hanushek of Stanford says: “I think teachers are way underpaid.” Hanushek and others argue that teachers who are able to increase student test scores can improve both a student’s lifetime earnings and contribute positively to society at large.

The NPR reporter, Greg Rosalsky, concludes: “While being a good teacher means huge economic benefits for the people they teach and society at large, teachers don’t get to fully share in all the benefits they create. In economic terms, that’s a positive externality, and it’s a big reason why we should pay them more.”

Duquesne University economist Antony Davies disagrees. Davies, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at FEE, explains that the media often misunderstands and misuses the term “externality,” as NPR did here. “Failing to share fully in the benefits one creates is not an externality,” says Davies. He continues:

The phenomenon is called “consumer surplus.” Not only does it exist in every transaction, it’s the reason we exchange with each other at all. Consider a car purchase. When a car dealer charges me $30,000 for a car for which I would have been willing to pay $35,000, the dealer does not benefit fully from the exchange. I walk away from the exchange $5,000 better off. But that doesn’t mean the dealer doesn’t benefit also. If the dealer charges me $30,000 but would have been willing to take $27,000, then the exchange makes the dealer $3,000 better off. For the exchange to occur, neither I nor the dealer can fully benefit from the exchange. Instead, we share the benefit. How we share the benefit is determined by the price to which we agree.

If teachers benefited fully from the value they create, there would be no point in obtaining an education because the entire value of the students’ educations would go to the teachers. Similarly, if students fully benefited from the value that teachers impart, there would be no point in teaching because the entire value of the students’ educations would go to the students. Instead, teachers and students share the value they create, and both walk away from the exchange better off than they were.

Davies points out a central problem with the Democratic presidential candidates’ education proposals, arguing that creating salary floors or offering universal pay increases do not address the root of the problem. He says:

The problem with teacher pay isn’t that teachers are paid too much, nor is it that they are paid too little. The problem with teacher pay is that it is largely divorced from teacher performance. Because pay schedules are usually set by the school district, principals don’t have the ability to reward outstanding teachers with greater pay nor to punish poor teachers with less.

Angela Dills, professor of economics at Western Carolina University, concurs. “I agree that better teachers should receive higher pay and that that’s more effective than across the board pay increases,” she says.

The inability to differentiate teacher quality and pay teachers accordingly limits the opportunity to reward top teachers and urge weaker teachers to improve. School leaders are not the only ones without the discretion to signal good and bad performance. Parents are also unable to offer these signals, with most required to keep their child in an assigned district school whether they like it or not. According to Davies: “Parents don’t have the ability to reward outstanding public schools and punish failing schools by diverting their tax dollars to the schools of their choice.”

A Better Alternative

Education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), tax-credit scholarship programs, and vouchers, allow parents to signal quality by opting out of inadequate schools and into higher quality learning spaces that work better for their children. Davies explains:

Voucher opponents claim that vouchers diminish the quality of public education by siphoning tax dollars away from public schools. But regardless of whether the quality argument is correct, the siphoning can easily be avoided. Allowing parents to send their children to any public school they choose and have the tax dollars follow the student—essentially, a voucher program restricted to public schools—would restore the link between pay and performance without removing any dollars from the public school system.

Programs like these can put parents back in charge of their children’s educations and can trigger true educational change. But the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates appears more interested in expanding the government’s ability to impose decisions on us. Empowering people to make their own choices is not in their education plans.

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