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An economical cautionary note

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The most amusing response to last week’s column was, “Our esteemed host, despite being gifted with intelligence and perception, is a liberal. And, when considering things political, liberals seem unable to actually look at the evidence.”

However else you interpret political events since the ascendency of the GOP in 2001, only a Fair and Balanced(TM) commentator would give political liberals exclusive credit for an unwillingness to consider evidence.

Not that it matters; I’m neither liberal nor conservative. I’m a member of the Competence Party.

The subject was giving tax cuts credit for tax revenue increases, which I used as an example of implausibility.

There’s a real connection to day-to-day business, since this proposition exemplifies a form of logic popular in business circles. I call it the Tom Peters Fallacy: Look at a success, identify something associated with the success you like, assert a causal relationship, and declare its universality.

Since I started this, I might as well finish it before getting down to business. Here’s my analysis:

  • Tax revenue increases have indeed followed all recent tax cuts, after a one to two year lag.
  • They’ve also followed all recent tax increases …
  • And all periods in which the tax rate didn’t change.
  • More significantly, all modern federal tax reductions have been accompanied by increases in federal spending.
  • And since all federal spending enters the private sector — either as wages to government employees or by paying the invoices of government contractors — it all generates taxable income.
  • Following all modern tax cuts the national debt grew faster than tax revenues.

The most plausible inference: Deficit spending rather than tax cuts is what increased tax revenues.

The relevance for you as an IT leader: Especially in complex dynamic systems (IT organizations are an example), cause and effect relationships are tricky to analyze. They usually have more than one cause, and operate in loops as well.

As long as we’re being political, here’s a news item that will cause many in IT security, and even more so many business travelers, to break out in cold sweats:

I’m quoting verbatim from “Travelers’ Laptops May Be Detained At Border,” by Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post Staff Writer, 8/1/2008:

Federal agents may take a traveler’s laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.

Also, officials may share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or a believer in J. Edgar Hoover’s legendary secret files to be concerned about this. All you have to do is provide support for international travelers.

The clearest risk is business impairment. To illustrate: One of your business travelers goes to Europe, does business, and returns. She documents the trip — maybe a write-up, maybe a spreadsheet, maybe a presentation, or some combination. Being prudent, she copies her files to a jump drive, just in case. At the border, DHS seizes her computer and jump drive. All of her documentation is unavailable for an unknown period of time.

Solution: Provide some means for remote back-up. At its most primitive it might mean e-mailing critical files as attachments. Or, it could mean providing an FTP site, or some public form of Internet backup you consider sufficiently secure.

Then, train, train, and train again. Employees discount low-probability risks as CYA activities. They might be right in this case, too — nobody knows the level of risk, and DHS isn’t likely to provide estimates of how many laptops they might sequester in an average week.

That’s the non-paranoid risk. If you’re paid to be paranoid, consider the possibility that one of the “private entities” with which DHS shares your data is a competitor.

Sure it’s unlikely. But then, security professionals are paid to be paranoid.

* * *

My colleague and good friend Ed Foster passed away last week, of an apparent heart attack. He was a fine journalist, a man of unimpeachable integrity, and showed courage in the issues and companies he took on. He was also a great guy. I liked him a lot.

Our industry will be the poorer for his absence.