TOC Bon appétit, messieurs! Lincoln upstaged by Hugo? Your Turn

One score and five years before Lincoln dedicated the United States to be "a government of the people, by the people and for the people", Hugo gave us no less a memorable lesson in politics. "To your heart's content, Gentlemen !" Ruy Blas (1) declares to the ministers of Spain, whom he has overheard circa 1695 busily serving themselves in the service of their country.

In a few months the 109th US Congress will come to a close. In a few weeks it will be Election Day.
Here is a challenge for an enterprising reporter:

Why, despite the introduction during this congress of more than seven bills to fight ID theft, absolutely no result has been achieved?

Was it

  • lack of time ?
    hard to believe when, as detailed this past week by Damon Darlin and Miguel Helft, so many law makers can make room on their agenda to hear Ms Dunn, the former chair of H.P., and her crack crew of pitiful plumbers (*)
  • lack of talent ?
    I will not be caught insulting the acumen nor the intelligence of the people's elected representatives
  • lack of interest ?
    surely not when, as reported last year by Tom Zeller Jr., so many bills were drafted by so many distinguished senators and representatives on the matter (**)
Maybe law is subject to fashion. The clothes which made for a good fit last year look today downright dowdy and congress men and women are nothing but persons of taste. A recent article by Steve Lohr seems to buttress this explanation (***). Contrary to expectations, the numerous incidents which exposed millions of consumer identities in 2005 did not result in surging losses from ID theft. Relatives who turn hostile are apparently more dangerous to one's credit worthiness than the hackers who got their hands on credit card transactions processed by CardSystems, now defunct. Sure credit-card fraud cost banks $1.1 billion dollars in 2005 but this is manageable and on par with prior years.

Allow me to be a bit more sceptical. First banks are not the primary victims of ID theft. Individuals and merchants are. Steve Lohr stands here accused of the ad writer sleight of hand, which lets you compare the flattering color photograph of someone after a diet to a stark black and white snapshot taken before the diet. He quotes a Justice Department estimate of $3.2 billions in ID theft losses over six months next to the previous figure of $1.1 billion lost by banks over one year. If congress thinks that a $6.4 billion per year loss rate is a trifle, procurement contracts for $400 ashtrays are sure to follow.

Second the real stakes behind ID theft laws are about consumer notification of personal information exposure. If a national law had enforced reporting, the majority of households would have realized by now that their identity had been put at risk at least once and often more than once within the past 18 months. Since the simplest way to choke the profitability of ID theft is to prevent thieves to tap their victims' credit by letting victims control third party access to credit reporting agency records, notification laws would have provided the momentum for free credit freeze laws. And there is the rub. If every US household may legally request a freeze, there goes the ability of credit reporting agencies to profit from the legions of junk mailers who buy their consumer records.

So let me follow on Ruy Blas' righteous outburst. "Ô ministres intègres", could the reason for your inaction be self interest ?

Elections cost phenomenal sums nowadays. Wouldn't it be interesting to follow the money which links the credit and direct marketing industries to the positions taken by US senators and representatives? Sure it is difficult to chart such positions when great care is taken not to vote on such delicate matters lest one leave a public record. But perhaps US Senator Feinstein, who is up for reelection, would be ready to enlighten voters in California as to who opposed the straightforward consumer notification bill she introduced in April 2005 ahead of everybody else.

Speaking of fashion, I find this modest proposal a fitting project for reporters such as Adam Liptak and Janet Roberts, who have just finished looking into vote buying at the Ohio Supreme Court (2), or David D. Kirkpatrick, who reported today on favor trading in the US House of Representatives (3). True the new task is complex and time is limited. But luck is in.

A talented team has just finished work at HP and already gotten some first hand experience with the intended target.
During their last assignment they have caused some damage to the ship, I concede, but they got the rat.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*)......H.P. Before a Skeptical Congress, by Damon Darlin and Miguel Helft (New York Times) - September 29, 2006
  • (**)....Data Security Laws Seem Likely, So Consumers and Businesses Vie to Shape Them, by Tom Zeller Jr. (New York Times) - November 1, 2005
  • (***)..Surging Losses, but Few Victims, by Steve Lohr (New York Times) - September 27, 2006
    • (1) To learn more on this masterpiece of Victor Hugo's playwright career, you need to know French as I lack a good English source on Ruy Blas
    • (2) Campaign Cash Mirrors a High Court's Ruling, by Adam Liptak and Janet Roberts (New York Times) - September, 2006
    • (3) Trading Votes for Pork Across the House Aisle, by David D. Kirkpatrick (New York Times) - October, 2006
October 2006
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