The Atlantic Monthly | May 2003
Selections from recent reports, studies, and other documents. This month: al Qaeda on the Internet; developing a "Star Trek 'phaser'"; New York's infuriating talking taxis; our states' regressive tax systems
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., has just published a report, written by the estimable Robert McIntyre (a liberal tax analyst whose numbers are among the most credible in the field) and six co-authors, that provides detailed statistics about tax burdens and tax trends in each state. It also ranks states according to their relative tax progressivity (Washington, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and South Dakota have the most regressive state tax systems; Delaware, Montana, Vermont, and California have the most progressive) and draws some broad conclusions about tax distribution nationwide. The report's central finding is that most state tax systems are regressive: on average, middle-income families pay more than twice as much of their income in state and local taxes as rich families do—and poor families pay a relatively greater share than even middle-income families. And these taxes have become more regressive over the past decade and a half. While taxes on the rich have fallen as a percentage of income since 1989, taxes on the middle class and the poor have risen. (A crucial determinant of how heavily a state's tax burden falls on its poorest citizens is how much the state relies on sales or excise taxes to generate revenue; poor families pay more than six times as much of their income in consumption taxes as rich families do.) As states mull over how to make up huge fiscal shortfalls in 2003 and 2004, this report is essential reading.
—"Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States," Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy
The American Way of War
Death rays and laser guns have been staples of science fiction for at least a century. Now, according to a comprehensive new report from the Lexington Institute, a conservative public-interest group, the U.S. military is on the verge of deploying such weapons in combat. "Directed-energy weapons"—that is, high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves —may change the very nature of warfare more significantly than anything since the invention of gunpowder. Some of the obvious advantages of these new weapons include their ability to travel at the speed of light, greatly reducing "the target's capacity to evade harm"; their extreme precision (an Airborne Laser can hit a target the size of a Mini Cooper from 300 miles away with "pinpoint" accuracy); their ability to fire repeatedly without reloading (conventional weapons can fire only as many rounds as their operators can carry); and the fact that they can not only strike targets but "acquire" them, by means of detecting, imaging, tracking, and illuminating devices that are built into the weapons themselves. (Of course, there are some vexing disadvantages, as well: for instance, dust or inclement weather can disrupt the functioning of lasers.) According to the U.S. Air Force, "Active Denial Technology" can project microwaves a sixty-fourth of an inch into an enemy's skin, producing acute pain without doing any physical damage. "The ultimate goal," the Lexington Institute says, "is to find the equivalent of the Star Trek 'phaser' that could be set on stun."
—"Directed-Energy Weapons: Technologies, Applications and Implications," The Lexington Institute
"We can say with some certainty, al Qaeda loves the Internet." So begins a recent paper by Lieutenant Colonel Timothy L. Thomas, an analyst in the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, that describes some of the myriad uses al Qaeda has made of the Internet. For instance, the evidence strongly suggests that Mohammed Atta and company used coded e-mails to plan the 9/11 attacks. (Reportedly, Atta's final e-mail was "The semester begins in three more weeks. We've obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts, and the faculty of engineering.") Terrorist operatives also relay hidden messages to one another by changing the color of icons on certain Web sites, or by changing the direction in which AK-47 icons are facing on others. Al Qaeda has even used Internet chat rooms as command-and-control mechanisms, and has used Web sites to publish the names and home telephone numbers of al Qaeda fighters captured in Pakistan, "presumably," Thomas writes, "to allow sympathizers to contact [terrorists'] families and let them know they were alive." Perhaps the most disconcerting observation Thomas makes, however, is that terrorists consciously manipulate the level of Internet and telecommunications "chatter"—which is what the Department of Homeland Security uses to raise and lower warning levels—to figure out where the leaks are in their communications network. "For example, if terrorists use encrypted messages over cell phones to discuss a fake operation against, say, the Golden Gate Bridge, they can then sit back and watch to see if law enforcement agencies issue warnings regarding that particular landmark. If they do, then the terrorists know their communications are being listened to by US officials."
—"Al Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of 'CyberPlanning,'" Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2003
The Wellington Effect
Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, was not, as the Duke of Wellington claimed, "the nearest run thing." In fact, Napoleon had only an 18 percent chance of winning that day. Two German political scientists, Ralph Rotte and Christoph Schmidt, looked at 625 battles from 1600 to 1973 to determine how much influence each of several key factors has on the outcome of military engagements. Having the advantage of surprise, for instance, turns out to be a strong determinant of "battle success," adding 15 percentage points to the likelihood of victory. And whereas superior training doesn't appear to give much of a competitive edge, superior intelligence does: it has a marginal impact of 25 percent on the likelihood of victory. (The conclusions are derived from statistical modeling.) But Rotte and Schmidt's central finding is that although there are individual exceptions (for instance, breech-loading rifles helped Prussia to defeat Austria at the Battle of Koniggratz, in 1866), technology has generally not affected battle outcomes: surprise, morale, logistics, and intelligence are all far more important. (Military planners in the Pentagon and elsewhere take note: this suggests that much of the literature on modern warfare, with its emphasis on the technological aspects of war, is misguided.) So what is the most important factor in determining victory in battle? Leadership: its marginal effect is nearly 50 percent. Which means that the Duke of Wellington was being modest. Had he not commanded the British forces that day, Napoleon, the authors calculate, would have had a 79 percent chance of winning at Waterloo.
—"On the Production of Victory: Empirical Determinants of Battlefield Success in Modern War,"The Institute for the Study of Labor
Go to Hell, Elmo
For several years now taxi riders in New York City have been subjected to disembodied celebrity voices (ranging from Eartha Kitt's to Elmo's, from Joe Torre's to Mr. Moviefone's) exhorting them to fasten their seat belts, collect their receipts from cabdrivers, and retrieve their personal belongings before leaving a cab. Have these exhortations had any effect? Not the desired one, apparently. According to a survey conducted by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, whereas only 21 percent of cab riders said the Talking Taxi messages had increased their seat-belt usage, and 67 percent said the messages had had no effect at all, 12 percent said it had caused them to decrease their seat-belt usage. (That passengers would seek to spite Elmo by consciously disregarding his reminders was surely not a calculation in the program's planning.) More than 80 percent of respondents said that Talking Taxi had no impact on whether they asked for their receipts, and more than 60 percent said it had not helped them remember to take their personal property. (Taxi and Limousine Commission data corroborate this: lost-property statistics are the same as they were before the celebrity-voices program was implemented.) Although a solid majority of respondents also said they simply didn't like the program, Matthew Daus, the Taxi and Limousine commissioner, is at pains to emphasize that his commission was not concerned with whether the Talking Taxi was popular, only with whether it worked. It doesn't.
—"Celebrity Talking Taxi Survey," New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission
The Case Against Pro Sports
It's a familiar phenomenon. A governor or a mayor, eager to draw development dollars and national attention to his region, announces a plan to bring a professional sports franchise to town. But there's a catch: to lure the team, the region will have to build a world-class stadium, financed primarily with local taxpayers' money. Why should the stadium be built with public money? Because, the politician says, brandishing a blue-chip consultant's "economic impact analysis," the investment will produce a net economic gain for the region. That's wrong, say the stadium's opponents, brandishing an economist's study: publicly financed stadiums represent a net economic loss for the region. So who's right—the consultant or the economist? Alas, the economist: almost every scholarly study on the subject has concluded that sports stadiums are not a good financial investment for a region. Why do politicians (and their consultants) persist in touting them? Because advocates base their positions on a calculus that is not merely financial. There are indirect economic effects (both positive and negative) and, more important, non-economic effects that are harder to measure as part of a simple cost-benefit analysis. Tim Chapin, an assistant pro-fessor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University, provides a brisk yet comprehensive summary of all the latest research on the impact that sports facilities have on their surrounding regions. It's worthwhile reading for anyone interested in local politics or urban planning, but sports fans will lament its conclusions. Not only has the economic literature definitively established that it is impossible to argue for a stadium purely on the basis of its direct economic benefits (the official death of the pro-facility economic argument can be dated to the Brookings Institution's publication, in 1997, of the book Sports, Jobs & Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums), but it has yet to be established that the other benefits (such as the psychological or image advantages to a community of "living in a big league town," the political and civic benefits that derive from large communal efforts, or the development effects catalyzed by new activity near the stadium) outweigh the economic costs.
—"Identifying the Real Costs and Benefits of Sports Facilities," Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2003; Primary Sources; Volume 291, No. 4; 46-49.