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There are empty threats, really empty threats, and threats so empty they could qualify as a black hole.  You can get an idea of that last category in a recent Wired piece titled “10 Percent of Americans Would Quit the Internet if Net Neutrality Dies”.  It begins:

Everyone from Comcast to the courts to government regulators should take heed: People want their internet service provider to treat all online traffic equally.

According to a survey recently published by Consumer Reports, 71 percent of internet users would switch to another service provider if their ISP violated network neutrality — the notion that no internet traffic should receive preferential treatment over other traffic. Ten percent of respondents even said they would be willing to give up internet altogether before putting up with throttled connections.

Do you believe those 10 percent?  No of course you don’t, and I don’t imagine Comcast does either.  But it’s even problematic for those rebellious 71 percent, as the piece later acknowledges by adding “But there’s a big wrinkle here: Users would need a competing service to actually move to, and options are limited in most cities.”  Yes, but it isn’t just cities that lack broadband options.

I haven’t thought much about, and have written even less on net neutrality, not because it isn’t important, it is, as the debates surrounding it may well shape what the Internet looks and operates like a few years from now.  It’s because I don’t see much reason to think that that future is going to be shaped by anything but large content and Internet service providers, their armies of lobbyist, and pages of FCC bylaws they manage to write.  It isn’t going to be determined by users with their empty threats and few to nonexistent alternatives.

And after all, it’s not even clear that users understand net neutrality or could spot a violation if they did, as “…the complex nature of the internet and the way it dovetails with other communication systems means that violations of net neutrality aren’t always easy to pin down.”, another quote from the piece.

It may seem unduly pessimistic or downright irresponsible to essentially cede the debate, but was there ever any territory to cede in the first place?  While it might have a pleasantly people power feel to it to warn the powerful players to “take heed”, the threat looks rather empty.  It’s surely better to look on that fact as realism, rather than pessimism.  Wouldn’t  the first step towards attaining power be seeing through the illusion that you currently have any?

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Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.

-Thomas Jefferson

Ever since the global financial meltdown of 2007-08 I’ve thought, off and on, about what, exactly, economics was.  Not in a philosophical or, really, a pedagogical sense, but in a purely practical sense.  As in, what does Economics do for or mean to the population at large?

Watching the video below, and noting how far not only perception is from reality, but how vastly further reality is from what people want it to be, I think those chasms represent part of an answer.

‘Warheads on foreheads’ is the title of one of the sections in this Washington Post story about a recent, extensive interview with NSA document leaker Edward Snowden.  Per Snowden, there were apparently people who joked that that was what they did…they put warheads on foreheads.

I haven’t written anything about Snowden or the NSA revelations because, well, I haven’t really had anything to say about them.  The stories that I’ve read, such as the early one on the PRISM program, have been a bit fuzzy on technical details, so I’ve found it difficult to make strong judgements.  I do value privacy though, and am concerned how modern technology can be used to violate it, so I welcome the NSA revelations, such as they’ve been so far.

And that’s why I’m a bit concerned when I read these paragraphs in the above mentioned section of the interview story:

Technology, of course, has enabled a great deal of consumer surveillance by private companies, as well. The difference with the NSA’s possession of the data, Snowden said, is that government has the power to take away life or freedom.

At the NSA, he said, “there are people in the office who joke about, ‘We put warheads on foreheads.’ Twitter doesn’t put warheads on foreheads.”

Privacy, as Snowden sees it, is a universal right, applicable to American and foreign surveillance alike.

The concern is the whiplash between the somewhat cheeky indifference he shows towards surveillance by private companies, and the proceeding paragraph wherein Snowden’s adherence to the principal of privacy as a universal right is affirmed.  Surely the lack of an ability to launch a missile doesn’t make the violation of a universal right any less profound.

And violate they do, as this Pando piece on data brokers by Yasha Levine documents.  Practically any sort of data on people is available for a price, sliced and diced to your particular needs.  Most shockingly, a list of rape victims was offered for sale.  But beyond the distaste of that specific list, the scale of the thing ( around a $200 billion industry ) combined with the opacity should be plenty enough to raise concern, even if warheads aren’t involved.

Now, Barton Gellman apparently spoke with Snowden for a full few days, and those conversations got compressed down to a short piece in the Washington Post, so the relative paucity of concern Snowden seems to express may not be quite indicative of his true feelings.  And his focus on government surveillance is understandable as that is where his experience lies.  (Though the fact that he worked for a private company, Booze Allen, when he took the NSA documents that he handed to journalists does indicate that the broad categories of private and government entities might not be that helpful)   But we all should be cognizant, no matter where our focus, that threats to the “universal right” of privacy come from many sources, and we do no service to that right when we minimize and dismiss some of those sources in favor of others.

Update

Evgeny Morozov has written what will apparently be an oped in the Financial Times that nicely pulls away and looks at the broader picture related to privacy and the NSA revelations.  It’s well worth a read, and can be read here.  A few choice paragraphs:

No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data – be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it. Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service.

What eludes Mr Snowden – along with most of his detractors and supporters – is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim.

 

 

Through the power of the twitter, I was recently reminded of a blog post by Sam Harris of a few years ago.  It’s titled How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying).  Harris wrote it in response to the reaction to a previous post of his, How Rich is Too Rich?, in which he had had the audacity to muse about the efficacy and morality of raising taxes on the rich.

He was a bit stunned.  Keep in mind that Harris has spoken and written about a myriad of controversial topics, including religion, torture, free will, and profiling at air ports.  His writing has elicited so much controversy in fact, that he’s dedicated a page to it: Response to Controversy.  And it’s the response to his ideas on taxation that  left his swimming upstream though a tide of outage

Do you have too many readers of your books and articles? Want to reduce traffic on your blog? It turns out, there is a foolproof way to alienate many of your fans, quickly and at almost no cost.

It took me years to discover this publishing secret, but I’ll pass it along to you for free:

Simply write an article suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires

You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.

If there is another example that illustrates, as clearly and depressingly, the enormous success of free market fundamentalism in penetrating and lodging into the popular consciousness than this passage, then I haven’t come across it.  How the propaganda has been so successful I wish I could say, but clearly the theology that’s been most successful in the US over the past 40 years isn’t the theology of Christ, or New Age mysticism, but the theology of the billionaire and invisible hand of the perfect market that has bestowed upon him his well deserved wealth.

Harris identifies one of the high priestesses behind this theology and take her, very satisfyingly, to task:

It is difficult to ignore the responsibility that Ayn Rand bears for all of this. I often get emails from people who insist that Rand was a genius—and one who has been unfairly neglected by writers like myself. I also get emails from people who have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” or otherwise saved by the “living Christ,” who have decided to pray for my soul. It is hard for me to say which of these sentiments I find less compelling.

As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly “objective” morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. And Rand’s attempt to make literature out of this awful philosophy produced some commensurately terrible writing. Even in high school, I found that my copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged simply would not open.

“Autism rebranded” is a great, succinct way of putting it.  Cutting the core, Harris has a great diagnosis of the fundamental problem with these ideas:

And lurking at the bottom of this morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.

This should be obvious given a few moments of self-reflection, that is apparently isn’t speaks to the power of the propaganda.  Whether this power comes from the ability of the propagandist or flaws within us, I don’t know.  But, given the quality of Rand’s writing, I tend to lean towards the latter.

I’ve never had any particular interest in the arcana of parliamentary procedure.  Any sentence containing the word ‘cloture’ is guaranteed to make my eyes gloss over, and what the hell is President pro tempore supposed to mean anyway?  Of all the books that exist in the world, Robert’s Rules of Order might literally be last on my reading list.  Even despite some fairly recent evidence to the contrary, I’ve taken for granted that the gears of government will grind on, even if slowly.  That there is something in the mechanics of the process of governing that will prevent it from going off the rails.  Sort of like how you take for granted that your engine will start whenever you turn the key.  Until it doesn’t.

And on October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year, the Federal government, or at least a lot of it, shut down.  So it seems I’ve lost the luxury of taking a base operational state of the US Federal Government for granted.  Was that luxury ever justified?  Forget the why for a moment, how does something like this happen?  Did a slight majority or minority in one half of one branch of government just shut the whole thing down?  How is that possible?

Well, as I said, I’ve been complacent and disinterested in matters of governance and legislation so I have no idea.  Perhaps our most august journalistic institutions can help.  This New York Times piece from September 30, Government Shuts Down in Budget Impasse looks like a good place to start.

What looks clear is that the dispute involves funding for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, with the House passing a bill that will defund or otherwise delay enactment of Obamacare, and the Senate refusing those measures.

In the hours leading up to the deadline, House Republican leaders won approval, in a vote of 228 to 201, of a new plan to tie further government spending to a one-year delay in a requirement that individuals buy health insurance.

So a chamber of the Senate can do that, delay the enactment of a law though the budget process?  Apparently so.  But the bill the Democratically controlled Senate wants to pass is clean, i.e. no “funny stuff”, as Lebowski’s nihilists might put it.

Earlier Monday, the Senate voted 54 to 46 along party lines to kill the previous House plan immediately after ending a weekend break. Senators then sent the House a bill to finance the government through Nov. 15 without policy prescriptions.

But House leaders would have none of it, again demanding a significant hit to the health law as a price for keeping the government open.

But why are there ever ‘policy prescriptions’ in funding bills at all?  Is that a new thing?  Some historical context would be helpful.

Maybe the Washington Post can help, let’s start with the hopefully titled So far on Capitol Hill, no end in sight over shutdown.  From early in the piece:

The GOP decision to attach the language to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act to the stalled spending resolution was a tactical one pushed by conservatives, who think that the spending bills represent their moment of greatest leverage with President Obama.

Well I suppose that makes some sense, the GOP doesn’t like the ACA and, since it is now law, and since they only control one house of Congress they can’t repeal it, so mangling it during the budget process would be the only option…I guess.  But I still wonder about precedent, and appropriateness.

After nearly three years of jumping from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, Democrats want to establish a different order. They would like to make temporary funding bills, such as the one the Senate passed last week to keep the government funded, and regular increases to the debt ceiling perfunctory matters that are routinely approved without bringing Washington to the brink of disaster each time.

And that makes sense…or at least more sense than re-fighting legislative battles all over again during the budget process.  And fighting them to an impasse that incapacitates the federal government.  This all still seems muddled and messy.  But then, that could be because it is muddled and messy.  But as far as a way through, this is towards the end of the piece:

Despite the heated talk about gutting the health-care law, Republicans have been quietly trying to coalesce around a set of goals that could win support from Democrats in a bipartisan pact that would resolve the annual spending bills and increase the debt ceiling. In exchange for lifting the debt ceiling, the possibilities floated include smaller cuts to the health law, including repeal of a tax on medical devices that funds a portion of the law but is unpopular even among many Democrats. Additionally, Republicans might push for a repeal of a medical advisory board that conservative critics have called a “death panel.”

Most likely, Republicans want to focus on reforms to entitlements, including a change in how the inflation index is measured for adjustments to Social Security benefits, and some other tweaks to mandatory spending. If those were adopted, Republican advisers said, it would pave the way for relief from the automatic cuts imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

All of this could be accompanied by vague language calling for the tax-writing committees in Congress to engage in a rewrite of the tax code.

It’s good to have goals, hopefully realistic goals.  I don’t know what that last paragraph is supposed to mean though…would the language have to vague for some reason?  Is this just meant to suggest that accomplishing all that is discussed could potentially be easy, not requiring specifically worded legislation?  Still muddled.

And still searching for some historical context, I found the Washington Post WonkBlog.  Like with geek, I’m generally a bit suspicious of those who self apply “wonk”, but sure enough there is a post with exactly the historical context I was looking for.  The piece lives up to its title, listing all the previous government shutdowns, why they happened, and how they ended.  Or at least, all the shutdowns since ” the modern congressional budgeting process took effect in 1976″, though just what the modern congressional budgeting process is is not explained.

The upshot to me is that mixing of policy prescriptions with funding bills is not new and unprecedented.  It’s brought the federal government to loggerheads a number of times in the past 40 years, whether over abortion, Contras, or nuclear powered aircraft carriers.  So it does seem like a systemic problem.

The same WonkBlog author, Dylan Matthews, explores that in another post titled The shutdown is the Constitution’s fault.  Stating early on where the fault of the shutdown lies:

If you’re a congressional process nerd, you’ll blame a budget process that has stopped working, if it ever did work, and which asks Congress to take far more actions every year than it can be expected to take in its currently hyper-polarized state.

That may be fair as far as it goes, but it does let the legislators, the actual people who have responsibilities and make decisions that they should be held accountable for, off the hook.

Ultimately, the wonk and presumed congressional process nerd, blames James Madison.

Madison is also wrong about how best to safeguard democracy in a diverse republic. The thesis of Federalist 51 is that elections alone are insufficient to guard against the possibility that a government will encroach upon the rights of citizens, either by a majority faction oppressing others or through all-out tyranny. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government,” Madison writes, “but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

It’s unclear exactly what Madison was so wrong about, apparently the need for “auxiliary precautions” in addition to elections to guard against tyranny.  And it’s not explicit what those unnecessary “auxiliary precautions” are, but since the piece goes on to talk about systems in New Zealand, Norway, and Israel that all have unicameral parliaments whose leader serves as the executive, presumably those precautions are the checks and balances to be had between separate executive and legislative branches.  My speculation seems to be borne out a few paragraphs later:

But it’s not just that Madison’s system is unnecessary. It’s potentially dangerous. Scholars of comparative politics have shown that presidential systems with a separation of executive and legislative functions, like America’s, are considerably more likely to collapse into dictatorship than are parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are merged. That’s because there are competing branches of government able to claim democratic legitimacy and steer the ship of state at the same time — and when they disagree profoundly, there’s no real mechanism for resolving the dispute.

That’s a bit scary.  But, circling back to the previous article on past shut downs, that list started in 1976 when the modern congressional budgeting process (whatever that is) took effect.  Couldn’t that be the problem, the budgeting process and not necessary the whole separation of the executive and legislative?  Rather than re-writing the constitution, couldn’t the budgeting process be fixed?

I mean, at least the federal government would be funded, wouldn’t it?  Though it does seem we have a tough row to hoe with the apparent lack of feeling that Americans, despite serious ideological differences, are involved in a common project.  Maybe it’s rose colored glasses, maybe things have always been this way, but the parties do appear to be extremely polarized, and only getting more so.  This paragraph is worth contemplating:

It’s important to be very clear about what’s scary here. It’s not any one instance of disagreement or brinksmanship. It’s the emergence of the sustained, structural problems that have harmed other countries with similar presidential systems. To believe that the U.S. won’t eventually face terrible consequences from the mixture of polarized parties in a presidential system is to believe that the clear trends in our political system will, for reasons that are currently unclear, reverse themselves. That would be nice, but as they say, hope is not a plan. And the problems of our politics have something of a built-in defense mechanism against meddlesome voters trying to impose sanity on the system.

The piece ends with:

That’s James Madison’s fault. It’s the Constitution’s fault. If you’re mad that American democracy has gotten to this point, don’t just blame Boehner or Obama or Ted Cruz. Don’t hate the players. Hate the game — and think about how to change the rulebook.

I’m pretty sure you can hate both.