Entries in politics (33)

Tuesday
Jun112013

Predicting the Present

Idea #7: The best way to accurately predict the future is to accurately predict the present.

I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning about the NSA scandal (ongoing) and the (now long-established) use of private contractors to analyze digital records, the sort of activity that would be obviously illegal if physical documents were involved instead of digital ones, when I was suddenly struck by the memory of Cory Doctorow’s comment about science fiction writers predicting the present. Because, in fact, Cory Doctorow wrote this one before, a short story called “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” (after the Jonathan Coulton song), published in 2008.

The story hits all the key points: Private contractors analyzing vast quantities of metadata for the surveillance state, and the sort of conflict between hired geeks and their authoritarian masters that results. Of course, in that story the private contractors are a cloistered society of lifehacking monks, but obviously a good science fiction has to push those predictions of the present a little in a future-weird direction. Doctorow’s story is a bit of a warning, too. The story at least raises the question of whether the withdrawal of the nerds into their own sousveilence society removed their effectiveness as an obstacle to the security state (in more way than one).

Well worth a read. And worth pointing out, especially since I’m not the only one thinking about fiction as warning in light of recent revelations.

Friday
Apr262013

Extremist Terrorism's False Flag

As a resident of the Boston area in the aftermath of the marathon bombings, I have to say the conspiracy theories have already gotten really annoying.  In this case, the simple hypothesis is actually very well supported, and conspiracy theorists tend to support their hypotheses with observations that are just as likely or almost as likely if they were completely incorrect.

But I do want to say a little bit about this concept of a false flag operation in the context of terrorists like the Tsarnaevs.  One of the things that’s odd about such a terrorist attack is it’s extremely unclear what sort of goals it might hope to achieve.  At least, it seems unlikely to frighten the US towards an isolationist policy, or achieve any end that directly supports the goals of (the violent extremist flavor du jour) militant Islamists.

The proliferation of this sort of tactic might be best understood under the concept of a false flag.  In a false flag operation, an attack is disguised so as to provoke a misdirected response.  In the archetypal case, this involves a government falsifying an enemy attack (or secretly facilitating a real enemy attack) to bolster public support for military action against that enemy.  But there’s an alternative scenario, in which an enemy seeks to have one of their potential allies blamed for the attack.  Even if the ally is not fooled by this ploy, the provoked counter-attack could provide the need to unite against a common enemy.

The best counter-attack against terrorism, therefore, is as restrained as it is effective.  I don’t mind that the police and military told people to stay home on April 19.  I don’t mind that they searched Watertown house by house.  Yes, it’s costly and disruptive, but having a bomber on the loose is also costly and disruptive.  Yes, the guy wasn’t found in the initial search, but there’s only so much you can do with limited information.

Ultimately, though, the town is getting back to normal.  We feel no need to buy the extremist’s implicit declaration that there’s a war on.  We can treat them as ordinary criminals.  Boston has dealt with those before.

Thursday
Oct182012

Romix/Obamix

I’ve been away from here too long, hosed by work and politics.  The presidential debates sure are interesting.  Wait… what was that about Barack Obama?  No, no, I didn’t mean that debate.  I meant this debate:

Round two:

Who the heck is moderating these?!  I guess it makes sense when you see the guy’s campaign ad:

The political cartoon has a venerable history, but I’m beginning to think the political remix is really capturing the zeitgeist of modern political satire.  Here’s something a bit more musical:

More from MC R-Money:

But before you think Romney’s the only one who’s been taking on a turn for the musical, I had to find some quality musical remix satire for Obama.  And not just the different, though also funny, type of remix that’s not political satire per se.  (This sort of thing is somewhere in the middle.)

Here’s one that’s pretty good (though probably cheating a bit and NSFW for swears):

What makes for a great political remix?  What’s your favorite example?

Tuesday
Aug142012

Robot Cars and Shell Games in Florida

It was very interesting to watch this video opposing Jeff Brandes in his bid for the Florida State Senate:

It’s probably the first political attack ad (political ad in general) to focus on driverless vehicles.  And there’s just so much to dig into!  It’s this amazing mix of forward and backwards thinking.

It’s got the designated-old-person narrator pushing the anti-autonomous-vehicles position when autonomous cars are likely to be an incredible boon for the elderly (stuck as they are in a car-dependent society with diminishing sight, hearing, and reaction time).

It’s got the misleading misquote from a Forbes article:  The ad says “Driverless Cars for All: More Dangerous Than Driving - Forbes”, but the actual Forbes article is titled Driverless Cars for All: An Idea More Dangerous Than Driving (emphasis mine), which is not about driverless cars being physically dangerous but the opposite, the “danger” is that manually-piloted cars will be forced off the road in the name of safety.

It quotes the headline of an opinion piece titled Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?, but that piece doesn’t imply that driverless cars won’t slow for pedestrians, just that there are complicated tradeoffs involved, and that driverless cars don’t solve that issue by their mere existence.  (Personally, I think autonomous cars will be great for pedestrians, but it’s unreasonable to expect that you can make everywhere safe to cross just by adding more computation and reducing reaction time, all while maintaining fast roads.)

It gets even weirder when you look into who’s funding the ad.  Just who is this Committee to Protect Florida?  Well, a PAC of some kind, they’ve got a hilariously generic description of their purpose.  But they disclose their expenses and contributions.  (Note that the “ecoreport” part of the URL probably has nothing to do with “ECOlogy”, but rather stands for “Electioneering COmmunications”.)

Expenses seem unsurprising, lots of postal spam and media advertising.

Politifact has a page on them (they have not gotten to this ad yet, though):

The Committee to Protect Florida is headed by Rockie Pennington, a political consultant for Richard Corcoran, a Republican candidate for State House District 45.

Corcoran, eh?  What’s he got to do with Brandes?

“I am honored to receive the endorsement of Richard Corcoran,” Jeff Brandes stated. “We worked hard during the 2010-2012 session to address the public’s desire to eliminate wasteful government spending and burdensome regulation. I will continue championing reforms in the State Senate that will boost small business and get Floridians working again.”

A major contributor to the Committee to Protect Florida is the Florida Leadership Fund, which has a very similar website and an even vaguer mission statement.  That gave to Brandes’s State House campaign in 2010, but now seems to be supporting his opponent, James Frishe, in the State Senate race.

Another contribution is Americana Media.  Which contributed web-design services, maybe?  They seem to specialize in blue websites for Florida politicians.

Committee to protect Florida is also supported by MARK PAC, which is where things get a bit weird:

Back in 2007, the Florida Elections Commission fined Democratic operatives Jeffery Ryan and Sara Henning a whopping $209,000 for  illegal financial dealings over several years through a political committee called Florida House Victory that had been set up to support Democratic candidates for the House.

This was all reported at the time. What got lost later was that Democratic Party lawyer Mark Herron—instead of Ryan or Henning—paid off the fine in two installments in Dec. 2007 and June 2008 through another political committee called MARK PAC, which drew its cash during the same periods from two Florida pari-mutuels, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, and health care giant Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Democrats say there was nothing wrong with the arrangement, and insist the state party had nothing to do with House Victory or paying off the fines.

Anyways, there’s a lot going on here.  It’s amazing just how complicated political campaign funding has become in the US even at the state level.  A good thing to keep in mind as the 2012 presidential race accellerates to full velocity, with no one quite sure who’s behind the wheel.

Full Disclosure: I don’t work on autonomous vehicle technology, but some people at my company do.

Thursday
May032012

The Bumpy Downside

One big debate within the peak oil community is if the world is facing an economic contraction due to scarce energy, will that be a “fast” or a “slow” collapse?  In a fast collapse, failures cascade in a rapid, catastrophic way.  In a slow collapse, there isn’t out-of-control acceleration, but past problems and a shrinking resource base undermine the ability to deal with future problems effectively, so the slide cannot be easily halted.

In 2005, I would have leaned towards “fast”, but I was wrong.  All signs, including the Baltic caviar price curve for oil (instead of the sustained high prices I would have expected) point to slow.

A great case-study for this sort of collapse in modern times is the fall of the Soviet Union, which Dimitri Orlov analyzes in his book, Reinventing Collapse.  So I was struck by a recent blog entry that discusses how Greece is now following a similar pattern:

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia’s life expectancy fell dramatically. It’s birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia […]

An excerpt really doesn’t do it justice, go read the whole thing.

On a similar theme, consider this post on bus fuel efficiency improvements:

Orion buses, by stark contrast, are so far almost doubling the miles a coach can travel on a tank. Thanks to the fact that the diesel engine driving them is half the size of a conventional bus’s, they are also quiet enough for the driver to hold a conversation with a passenger on the freeway without either raising their voices. Oh, and don’t let that small engine fool; they move up hills faster than the conventionals. These buses are nice.

And they are going to be needed. As the financial crisis deepens, more and more are riding the bus. A financial analyst stumbled upon probably the best graph yet for visualizing the present perhaps post-peak world […]

The graph is question is this:

The post goes on to note:

Remember my excitement over the new Orion coaches? One of their chief investors in the hybrid technology, Daimler, has decided that increasing bus fuel mileage is simply not profitable:

Daimler Buses North America no longer will manufacture buses at its Orion facility in the Oneida County Industrial Park, officials announced Wednesday…

“Daimler Buses considered all possible options for reconfiguring our transit bus operations in North America,” said Harmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses. “But at the end of the day, Orion is facing a situation where the cost position is not competitive, the local market is in a continued slump and growth opportunities are not available from selling the product overseas.”

It’s not because these buses won’t prove cost effective in a future with ever-rising fuel costs. That’s not it at all. It’s because an era of ever-rising fuel costs will force everyone to reorganize their expenditures. Businesses that rely upon cheap fuel will cut back or go out of business, and closed and/or downsized businesses can’t pay as much in taxes.

Taxes pay for buses.

So just when they need to cut back on their own travel expenses, many workers will see a shortage of buses available to get them to and from work.

That’s slow collapse for you.  Mundane problems with mundane solutions so close at hand.  And yet…

Friday
Apr202012

Who Will Pay for the Future?

I recently read The Coming Generational Storm.  It’s an alarming book, and well worth reading.  Of particular note is the method of generational accounting.  It seems to take a page from formalism in treating all promises equivalently (whether that promise is that benefits will be delivered, that bonds will be paid off, or that taxes will not be raised) and treating the status quo as an implicit promise.  Looking at the possibility of implicit and explicit default is also key:  Benefits delivered worthless are the same as benefits not delivered at all, and inflation functions as a tax on financial assets even if taxes aren’t raised.

Of course, the question isn’t just whether promises will be broken or renegotiated, but whose promises will be subject to adjustment.  The youngest generation had little say in the current political order, so to what extent will they be willing to foot the bill?

If there’s a generational conflict, the young don’t seem to be winning, as noted in the Esquire article, “The War Against Youth”:

In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.

This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.

[…]

Nobody ever talks about generational conflict. […] Even the Occupy Wall Street crowd, while rejecting the modes and rhetoric and institutional support of Boomer progressives, shied away from articulating the fundamental distinction that fills their spaces with crowds: young against old.

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981.

And it’s not just congress (and other formal, governmental politics), but academia:

From 1980 on, the price of attending a four-year college has risen by 128 percent. While the price has spiked, the quality has tanked. […] In a survey published in 2011, 45 percent of students showed no improvement in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years of college. […] And how could the results be any different? Three decades ago, 43 percent of professors were adjuncts. Now, with colleges bloated by older, tenured professors who take up huge slices of academic budgets while teaching crumbs of courses, the vast majority of classes are taught by adjunct.

[…]

But maybe […] you want to get a master’s or a professional degree. With entry to the professions comes another opportunity to be taken advantage of, and it’s not just the inherently ridiculous price of a creative-writing M.F.A. or journalism school, where on some level, everybody understands the students are being played for suckers. The cost of medical school has spiked over the past three decades. In 1981, average medical-school debt was less than $20,000. Today it is $158,000. Law-school tuition rose 317 percent between 1989 and 2009 while American laws schools wildly increased the number of lawyers they graduate. Naturally, a glut of lawyers decreases their value. So kids pay more for a worse education that leads to lesser prospects in order for the schools to prosper temporarily. […]

And unions:

New workers will earn a “globally competitive wage.” […] Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do […]

To the extent that the recent economic crisis hurt retirees as well, it’s not clear that this doesn’t exacerbate the transfer of wealth and opportunity away from the younger generation, as would-be retirees delay retirement.  This MarketWatch commentator notes that the BLS statistics on that point may be exaggerated if compared with statistics from different samples at face value, but concludes the trend is still there:

Part of this story is a real phenomenon: More baby boomers are staying on the job because they are healthy enough to keep working. They like working. Further, many of them desperately need the money: They lost their retirement nest egg when the housing market collapsed and the stock market stalled. Fewer of them can rely on a defined benefit pension, and more of them must rely on their own savings to fund their retirement.

[…]

The good news is that employment has been growing faster than the population in every major demographic group. In other words, the employment-population ratios have been rising since the depths of the recession. But, except for the oldest age group, the employment-population ratio is far below pre-recession levels.

[…]

The same thing happened to the generation that came of age in the 1930s. They put their lives on hold for years, and we are still living with their legacy: the baby boomers who are now clinging to their jobs. [emphasis mine]

American politics in particular is hooked on wishful thinking about the future.  If the future is one of unmitigated economic growth, increase productivity might pay all bills and pave over the entire problem.  Admitting that this is not to be is politically untenable.  It is tempting (and reasonably so) for middle-class children to view their parents as excessively optimistic, as opposed to viewing them as short-sighted cowards who sold their children’s birthright to the ultra-rich in order to secure their own retirement.

And it will be hard to renegotiate the social safety net in the face of a retiree voting bloc convinced on the one hand that the whole thing was a bad idea after all and should be scrapped, but on the other hand it’s good that we can just barely afford to keep it around for those who are really counting on it.

As the Esquire piece concludes:

Youth should be the only issue of the 2012 election, because all the subsidiary issues — inequality, the rising class system in America, the specter of decline, mass unemployment, the growing debt — are all fundamentally about the war against young Americans. But the choice young Americans face is between a party that claims to represent their interests but fails to and a party that explicitly opposes their interests and actively works to disenfranchise them.

[…]

By bus and train and car pool, they will follow the gerontocracy to Tampa and Charlotte, the cities with the utter misfortune of hosting the presidential nominating conventions. Then we’ll see if the people inside the convention centers can find the youth anything better to do.

We’ll see then how the flowers of rage, planted and nurtured so carelessly for three decades, have sprung up and who will harvest them.

Friday
Mar302012

Trayvon Martin and the State of Discourse

I’ve been following the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  On the left, there was a rush to accuse Zimmerman of cold-blooded murder.  On the right, there was a rush to paint Martin as a thug and double down on the racialized paranoia.  But the facts that really make or break the case (specifically, who started the fight) are currently unknown.  The unusual bits of Florida’s laws on self-defense don’t really apply to this case, they don’t excuse murder if you provoke someone into attacking you and then resort to lethal force, or if you attack first and later fear for your life when the fight doesn’t go your way.

There’s some interesting discussion to be had on the role of guns in self-defense and aggressive violence, guns win fights but also escalate the stakes awfully quick:

Statistically, incidents of guns being used successfully in self-defense are extremely rare. The following events are a lot more likely:

• Criminal gets hold of your gun and uses it against you.
• The gun gives you a psychological feeling of self-confidence that will cause you to get into bad situations you otherwise would have avoided if you did not have the gun.
• Use of a gun in an ambiguous situation will get you in prison for murder, which is worse than getting beaten up.
• Being prosecuted for murder will ruin your life even if the jury finds you not guilty.

The Zimmerman incident is a good example of the truth of the above. The video showed that Zimmerman wasn’t beaten up that bad. Without the gun, Trayvon probably would have run away after giving him a good but not life-threatening beating. And according to Zimmerman’s father, Trayvon saw the gun, which caused an escalation in the altercation.

There’s something to be said about race relations in this country, something to be said about violence, about respect and community, about culture, about the standards of criminal evidence.  But most of what I hear about this case depresses me because it seems to be overwhelmingly characterized by those that no longer hope for productive dialog on this sort of issue, from one side:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Mikhail Muhammad said at a Saturday press conference in Sanford, Fla., in which he also called on 10,000 black men to “capture” Zimmerman. “He should be fearful for his life”…

Or the other:

In the last few days I’ve repeatedly discussed blacks’ common attitude that their response to any white authority figure who asks them anything is to resist, fight, ignore, or run away. But the commenter at Half-Sigma puts it better: Non-blacks may not talk to blacks, period. To say anything to a black is to step into his territory, it is to dis him, and thus to provoke his righteous vengeance…

Seems like on some issues the state of discourse in this country is only slightly better off than Trayvon Martin.

Thursday
Mar082012

Murray and Meritocracy

I’m going to write a bit more about Murray, in response to an op-ed follow-up to his recent book.  The op-ed responds to the accurate criticism that his book describes a problem but doesn’t lay out policy suggestions or responses.  In the article, he makes several suggestions:

  1. Eliminate unpaid internships
  2. Replace the SAT with subject-specific tests
  3. Replace ethnic or racial affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action
  4. Eliminate bachelor’s degrees as a job requirement

All of those sound reasonable to me, though I don’t think those would make that much of a difference.  Neither does Murray, he thinks it would be more symbolic.

The big about degree requirements is interesting, in part because there’s been some action on a similar legal front with regard to high school diplomas.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has at least raised the issue of whether high-school diploma requirements could be discriminatory when that credential is not well-connected to actual job requirements.  There are probably quite a few jobs where the credential of a college degree (especially if not requiring any particular subject) is also not well-connected to the job requirements, and may have an adverse effect on protected groups.

Murray really does have a lot in common with meritocratic liberals.  A common mis-characterization of the liberal position on group differences among alt-righters seems to paint liberals as radical “blank-slate” believers, who either think there are no identifiable groups (plainly wrong), there are no differences between identifiable groups (plainly wrong), or that there are differences between groups but by really lucky coincidences none of those differences are morally significant (plainly wrong and incredibly implausible (unless you think no differences are morally significant, I guess)).  Rather, liberals mainly disagree with Murray on whether wandering into the rhetorical minefield of biological group differences is net-beneficial.

Murray himself notes in an essay summarizing his previous book:

In all cases, the variation within groups is greater than the variation between groups. On psychological and cognitive dimensions, some members of both sexes and all races fall everywhere along the range. One implication of this is that genius does not come in one color or sex, and neither does any other human ability. Another is that a few minutes of conversation with individuals you meet will tell you much more about them than their group membership does.

Which makes me wonder why he can’t avoid those minefields entirely instead of merely tiptoeing.

(There’s some further fascinating discussion of the op-ed here.  The comments are really worthwhile, in particular the comment (left March 8, 2012 at 10:19 am, sadly no comment permalinks on that site) by Albatross on meritocracy.)

Saturday
Feb252012

The Fall of "Fishtown"

A while ago, I picked the January 2012 issue of conservative journal The New Criterion (Volume 30, Number 5) from a local newsstand.  The issue caught my eye because it had a symposium on the question “Is America in decline?”, a topic I find fascinating as a futurist and someone interested in Peak Oil and similar phenomena.

One of the essays on the purported decline of America was “Belmont & Fishtown” by Charles Murray, summarizing Murray’s book Coming Apart, which discusses “The State of White America”.  (Presumably “white America” specifically for rhetorical reasons, given the fate of Murray’s most famous work.)  Murray discusses the richest and poorest of whites, using Belmont and “Fishtown” as emblematic labels for these groups.  Murray’s conclusion is that since the 1960s, “Fishtown” has gone into deep decline in terms of American core values (Murray refers to such as “Founding virtues”).  “Belmont” has avoided such decline, but become isolated (geographically (for more on that topic, see Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort) and in terms of tastes and preferences (becoming David Brooks’s bourgeois bohemians).

Murray talks about four values in his study:  Marriage (and single vs. married birth and parenting), industriousness (Murray just looks at hours worked and participation in work force), honesty (Murray just looks at crime rates), and religiosity (which Murray posits causes increased civic engagement, but I’d say that it’s just correlated to civic engagement in general; church attendance is just a civic engagement thing religious people do).

Why did this happen?  Murray goes into little detail (at least in the short essay version of his work, I have not read the book).  One reason cited is the sorting effect of elite universities, coupled with financial aid.  This is an unintended consequence of meritocracy, the best and brightest, no matter how poor, are able to escape from troubled “Fishtown” (and, presumably, ensconce themselves in isolated “Belmont”), leaving “Fishtown” with even less social, cultural, human, and financial capital to deal with its escalating problems.  (Affirmative action would presumably bring the same effect to a broader cross-section of de-facto-segregated communities, but Murray doesn’t discuss this because he’s focusing on whites.)  As the problems get worse, the best and brightest of “Fishtown” have fewer opportunities where they grew up and more incentive to leave.

There’s one big thing missing from Murray’s explanation, though, perhaps best explained by a graphic like this:

(Excerpt from a graphic by the New York Times, from this opinion piece, HT Nick Huber.)

I’d say that’s the real power behind the wedge that’s driving “Fishtown” and “Belmont” apart.  I’d guess that the decline in the top marginal tax rate has something to do with that phenomena, though that came too late to be the primary cause.  Once you have the wedge of economic inequality (that is, declining economic opportunity that disproportionatly affects those already worse off (and pretty much anything will disproportionately affect those already worse off)), all sorts of feedback loops start up related to Murray’s metrics:

  1. Marriage: Less economic opportunity means fewer people can find a match who will make them better off. Job-related stresses also take a toll on relationships.
  2. Honesty: Less economic opportunity means more desperate people on the fringes.
  3. Industriousness: Murray asserts that divergence on this metric began when demand for labor was still high, but work that pays less (relative to national standards of living) is still less motivating.
  4. Civic Engagement: Less economic opportunity means less funds for church dues and other activities.  Increased job stress may mean less time/energy for other activities.
  5. Honesty + Marriage: Harder to get married if you’re a criminal.
  6. Honesty + Industriousness: Ditto for finding employment, even if it’s available.
  7. Honesty + Civic Engagement: Why participate in your community if you don’t like/trust your neighbors?
  8. Civic Engagement + Marriage: A good context to meet people, and in terms of child rearing in or out of wedlock, you’re more likely to care about social censure if you’re a member of a social group in the first place.
  9. Civic Engagement + Honesty: Building the sort of trust and norms that discourage crime.
  10. Any one of those four + itself: Norms change, it’s a vicious cycle.  The sorts of capital that keep these metrics high is also driven out when they decline.  Successful people leave, organizations move or cease to exist, webs of trust break down.

The above isn’t an inclusive list, and that’s not all that’s going on.  Technology has a role to play, too, and given my earlier points about the Robot Revolution (related), I expect the trend in the graph above to get worse.

I think both liberals and conservatives are aware of the decline Murray discusses, though I’ve seen rhetoric from both sides accusing the other of being in denial.  The underlying problem is largely untargeted by either side.  Liberals only have the political power to defend stop-gap measures that help the poorest of the poor.  Conservatives deny that a gap between productivity and wage growth is a problem, or suggest that the poor will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if only liberals stopped “helping”.  That line misses two things:  First, the “rising tides lift all boats bit” doesn’t really fit with the psychological reality of the situation, which is that people judge how well off they are relative to others in their society, so economic inequality means social breakdown even if standard of living continues to rise.  Second, there seem to be some implicit and very rosy assumptions about the form such bootstrap-pulling would take, especially if the “social safety net” really is removed (or overwhelmed).

(There’s been about Murray going around the blogosphere (especially among alt-righters), some posts to start on include this speculation about Charles Murray and the Future and this review of the book.  I’d be curious to see more left-wing reactions to the book, too, if there are good ones to read.)

Friday
Jan202012

Internet Blackout

If you’ve been paying attention to the internet, you probably noticed that a wide swath of website users and owners were none-too-pleased at the proposal of the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (from the US Senate and House of Representatives, respectively).  This led to a coordinated website strike and mobilization campaign last Wednesday.

There’s a great technical analysis of the problems with the bill on the Reddit blog here.  But I think the best analysis of the issue I’ve seen comes from this TED Talk given by Clay Shirky:

His central point is that SOPA and PIPA represent the latest in a trend in entertainment industry lobbying, away from getting Congress to define the distinction between legal and illegal copying (producing, for example, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992), towards restricting copying through technical means and making it illegal to work around those “protections”.  The DMCA lets companies sell you “broken” (for the purpose of restricting copying) devices and makes it illegal for you to fix those devices.  PIPA and SOPA let the government (at the behest of the entertainment industry) break DNS to censor “pirate” sites, and would make it illegal to work around that (which requires search engines and the like to pay to police themselves so that they aren’t indiscriminately helping users find such things).

Cory Doctorow describes this trend towards technological control systems backed by force of law (and away from legislation about what sorts of things should or shouldn’t be legal, with restrictions on liberty sitting on the other side of due process) in a recent essay titled Lockdown: The Coming War on General Purpose Computing.

The bills have been defeated for now, and in the aftermath, many activists have pointed out that similar legislation will undoubtedly reemerge (under the same name, a new name, or grafted wholesale into something politically inconvenient for legislators to oppose).  But after watching Shirky and reading Doctorow, I’m convinced it’s not sufficient to oppose, whack-a-mole-style, the latest bit of oppressive-technology-backed-by-force-of-law that comes up.  It’s necessary to oppose the idea that companies should be allowed to sell computers that can work against their users in ways that the users are prohibited from fixing.  And it’s necessary to move the copyright debate back to what sorts of copying should or shouldn’t be allowed, regardless of what sorts of copyright law the entertainment industry might be willing to buy or sell.