Author Archives: Quincy

James Comey vs. your privacy

Today’s smartphones contain more data about your life than any other device in human history. It could be argued that they even contain more usable information about your whereabouts and activities than your own brain. Naturally, post-Edward Snowden, protecting that information is a priority for a lot of people.

James Comey wants access to all of that information and he’s willing to let bad guys get at it too:

“Encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place.”

“Encryption isn’t just a technical feature; it’s a marketing pitch … it’s the equivalent of a closet that can’t be opened. A safe that can’t be cracked. And my question is, at what cost?” Comey said. “Both companies [Apple and Google] are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand. But the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate.”

[…]

“With Going Dark, those of us in law enforcement and public safety have a major fear of missing out—missing out on predators who exploit the most vulnerable among us … kids call this FOMO,” he said.

Comey kept referring to the “debate” and “national conversation” that needs to be had regarding widespread encryption. That conversation, in Comey’s mind, should stop and start with the idea that there must be a “front door” means for the FBI, NSA, and other law enforcement agencies to blast through encryption. In other words, companies should be “developing [law enforcement] intercept solutions during the design phase,” a proposition that, beyond making encryption useless, is potentially not even technically feasible.

“Congress might have to force this on companies,” he said. “Maybe they’ll take the hint and do it themselves.”

Read the whole thing.

The view from the bubble

They say we’re entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Except, of course, if we’re Paul Krugman:

When it comes to Barack Obama, I’ve always been out of sync. Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded: Even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of us would later take to calling Very Serious People, people who regarded cutting budget deficits and a willingness to slash Social Security as the very essence of political virtue.

And I wasn’t wrong. Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP’s unwillingness to make even token concessions.

But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

As usual, his screed is filled with cherry picked statistics, unsupported claims, and plenty of vitriol for those who don’t agree with him. He uses these weapons, such as they are, to paint a picture of Barack Obama as a consequential and successful president. While I certainly won’t argue with consequential (there have certainly been consequences for electing Obama), the bar Krugman sets for success is convenient for his case but meaningless to Americans outside the elite bubble.

How does Krugman address this?

Yes, Obama has a low approval rating compared with earlier presidents. But there are a number of reasons to believe that presidential approval doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to: There is much more party-sorting (in which Republicans never, ever have a good word for a Democratic president, and vice versa), the public is negative on politicians in general, and so on. Obviously the midterm election hasn’t happened yet, but in a year when Republicans have a huge structural advantage – Democrats are defending a disproportionate number of Senate seats in deep-red states – most analyses suggest that control of the Senate is in doubt, with Democrats doing considerably better than they were supposed to. This isn’t what you’d expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down.

More important, however, polls – or even elections – are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn’t be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better. Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes.

Krugman’s point about changing the country for the better is an interesting one. It inevitably leads to the question of better for whom. We the people, pesky knaves who base our opinions on the reality we face every day, have been rejecting the claim that Obama has been successful in poll after poll for years.

That rejection is not hard to understand. Jobs are still hard to come by. Our hours have been cut. Our benefits have been slashed. Our savings haven’t earned interest in half a decade. We see more and more people on the streets, not just in big cities but in suburban towns. We know we might be one job loss away from joining them. We see a generation graduating from college into a hopeless economic situation. We know our children might be next. Worst of all, we’ve had to listen to the media trumpet recovery and economic good news while our situations are still terrible.

Instead of acknowledging the reality faced by the people, Krugman moves to silence and marginalize us. Our opinions are due to partisanship and being down on politicians in general. With a wave of a hand, he rewrites our stories to fit his narrative. This leaves room to for Krugman to explain Obama’s successes using only his preferences and priorities for reference. Inside the bubble, he matters and we don’t.

The problem with mobile Amber Alerts

As you might have heard, many Californians were awakened by their phones last week for a late-night Amber Alert:

Russ went to bed early, setting “do not disturb” mode on his iPhone so no one could wake him up. His phone did wake him up, though, screeching and lighting up with an Amber Alert message about abducted children in a different part of the state. He asked Consumerist: how can he make these unwanted text messages stop?

What Russ got wasn’t a text message. It was part of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, or WEA. That’s a Federal Communications Commission program that zaps alerts about man-made or natural disasters, urgent messages from the President, and Amber Alerts directly to your phone.

Russ’ case was typical. That’s the problem. Amber alerts do not represent life-and-limb emergencies for 99.999% of those who receive them. Yet, thanks to the requirement of all WEA messages to be accompanied by the distinctive Emergency Broadcast System tone, they are treated as such.

Predictably, the noise and disruption caused by this late-night alert sent a lot of folks (myself included) scurrying to turn it off. California officials warn against this:

[T]he tones that come along with [Amber Alerts] are disruptive and annoying.

They’re supposed to be – to wake you up and make you pay attention and law enforcement officers statewide are urging cell users to stay in this potentially life-saving loop.

“That individual who may have deactivated may have provided that info on an individual that we’re looking for. Put yourself in those cases as well and put it into perspective,” Quintero said.

Speaker of the Assembly John Perez is so concerned about possible mass alert deactivations that he’s calling for a legislative hearing on the matter.

He also plans to arrange funding for a campaign of public service announcements emphasizing the importance of the alert system.

The public service announcements will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem. They might get a few people to turn the alerts back on, but those same folks will end up turning them off again with the next Amber Alert. Personally, I’m not going to budge. As a musician and a software professional, I need to have absolute trust in the Vibrate Only and Do Not Disturb settings on my smartphone. The Amber Alert I received caused my phone to emit a noise on maximum volume despite my setting it to Vibrate Only.

After this happened, I carefully examined the Emergency Alert settings on my device and found that there is no way to leave these on without the sound. That lack of choice is unfortunate. I would have been perfectly happy receiving Amber Alerts that displayed like other push notifications. I know at least a dozen other people who feel the same way. Judging by the news, there are probably hundreds of thousands more in the state. Each and every one of us will never get another Amber Alert on our phone because our only choices were to tolerate the noisy disruptions or opt out entirely. Guess we’ll just have to get our Amber Alerts from those signs on the highways.

Embrace Burke? No thanks, Mr. Dionne. I’ll take Coolidge instead.

In his never-ending campaign to weaken those who oppose a progressive state, E.J. Dionne has attempted to give American Conservatives (including, in his flawed formulation, libertarians) a new idol: Edmund Burke. Embracing Burke, Dionne posits, would “clip the wings of modern conservatives”:

It’s to Norman’s credit that he recognizes how “Burke also clips the wings of many contemporary conservatives.” While he “helped establish modern conceptions of nationhood and national allegiance,” he “rejected military adventures.” He “celebrated religious observance, but despised moral absolutism.”

Norman also sees Burke as implicitly offering “a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in Western society.” He thinks that Burke would “note the extraordinary greed and self-dealing seen over the past decade by the modern nabobs of banking and finance in a series of cartels disguised as markets.” And a Burkean conservatism would be wary of any ideology that “causes people to lose sight of the real social sources of human well-being and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity.”

The second paragraph is built on an entirely faulty assumption. It is simply beyond question that the FHA and its’ regulated GSEs were the key enabler of the housing bubble of the last decade in the US. These New Deal programs socialized the risk of mortgages while allowing private players to reap the profits. True market fundamentalists always railed against these distortions of markets. It is advocates of big government, such as Dionne himself, who are to blame for the situation.

Even without the factual error, Dionne’s quote from Norman on Burke’s belief is wrought with other problems. It requires one to believe that greed is linked to individualism and ignore the parade of collectivists who sought to use the machinery of Washington to exploit others for the own gain. (Sadly, too many people actually believe this, but that’s another story for another time.) It requires one to believe that conservatives care deeply about celebrity as a part of a core ideology. Dionne perhaps missed the right’s revulsion to the concept of Barack Obama as a savior and a light worker. Or maybe he didn’t and just assumed it was a symptom of bitter clinging. In any case, he overlooks the fact that the left has a monopoly on personalizing politics in this country.

Now that we have established that Dionne’s understanding of a conservative is already tenuous, at best, let’s read his vision of a model Burkean Conservative:

Burke’s conservatism was based on a proper understanding of that word. He believed in preserving the social order and respecting old habits. He persistently warned against the destructive character of radical change. He was wary of ideology and grand ideas, rejecting, as Norman puts it, “universal claims divorced from an actual social context.” Burke saw the well-ordered society as a “partnership of the dead, the living and the yet to be born,” a nice formula for a forward-looking traditionalism — and not a bad slogan for environmentalists.

Here, Dionne unwittingly uncovers a truth. Given that the modern social order in the US is built upon the legacy of the progressives and the New Deal, to be a Burkean conservative is to be a mainstream progressive. Libertarians are seen as radicals precisely because we want a social order that dispenses with the New Deal and its legacy. Meanwhile, modern Republicans play to shape a conservative social agenda using the rules and mechanisms put in place by the New Deal. Even the Constitution, the contract between the dead, the living, and the yet to be born in the United States, is interpreted through the ideology of the New Dealers.

This insight brings us to the most laughable of Dionne’s assertions:

Conservatism will flounder unless it remembers the imperative of addressing the interests of the many, not the few.

Progressives have never done anything but address the needs of the few. Which few and to what degree are always in question. The need for an underclass of highly productive but exploitable people is not. This underclass was referred to by William Graham Sumner as “The Forgotten Man”:

It is when we come to the proposed measures of relief for the evils which have caught public attention that we reach the real subject which deserves our attention. As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. As for A and B, who get a law to make themselves do for X what they are willing to do for him, we have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law, but what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.

Sumner’s appellation notwithstanding, members of this productive underclass are not forgotten by progressives. On the contrary, they are known to be a vital component of any progressive plan for society. In the Affordable Care Act, for example, they are the young and healthy who must be conscripted into the health insurance market so that their premiums might benefit the old and sick. In Social Security, they are the workers who pay taxes in so that retirees may get benefits. In Affirmative Action, they are the whites and Asians who lose opportunities granted to other minorities on the basis of skin color.

For decades, progressives maintained the illusion that it was only a demonized few who bore the brunt of this exploitation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his political acumen to identify groups for benefit or demonization. He went so far in this endeavor as to hire photographers and writers to produce propaganda about those who benefited while launching vicious legal battles against innocent men just because they were in a group targeted for demonization. (This does have a familiar ring, doesn’t it?)

However, that illusion has cracked in recent years. Eventually, millions of members of the productive underclass realized exactly what was going on. So born was the Tea Party, a so-called conservative movement. Distressingly for Dionne, this movement is far from the conservatism Burke preached and Dionne practices daily. It is radical, seeking to smash a social order built upon exploiting its members for the benefit of others.

The radical nature of the Tea Party prompted fear among the establishment. Both major parties in America are essentially progressive in mechanics, if not agenda. The angry, dismissive reaction from the Republicans and the downright punitive reaction from the Democrats highlighted how radical the idea of declaring one “taxed enough already” truly is. Since the Wilson administration, Washington has decided who was taxed enough already and who could pay more.

The Tea Party, for all the good it has done in revealing the corruption in Washington (much through its own victimhood at the hands of the IRS), is still a movement lacking a positive idea. It is essentially a movement pushing for a cessation of activity. This will cause many to ask what shall be done instead. The Tea Party has no answer for this.

Neither, it seems, do most libertarians. We tend to focus on the “no” too often as well. Government should stop doing this and not start doing that. We’re seen as a force of negativity. Unfortunately, in a world where we are opposed to both major parties and the mainstream media apparatus designed to enforce the status quo, negativity doesn’t sell.

Respect and stability, however, do. Enter Calvin Coolidge. The concept of normalcy embraced by Harding and Coolidge is both simple and elegant. Here is a description of the concept by Amity Shlaes in an interview with Ed Driscoll:

Ed, what did you learn normalcy was in school? I learned it was something kind of dull, right? Like the — normalcy doesn’t sound elevated or wonderful and that was the Harding motto.

But what they meant by normalcy is not we should all be normal and cogs. Right? What they meant is the environment should be normal so that we can have fun and play with new ideas, which is something very different. Predictability, the reduction of uncertainty. Coolidge as a candidate even used the phrase “uncertainty” which you hear so much today and which is also the subject of Forgotten Man. It’s less uncertainty, please. He really — it’s a theme all the way to the end of his life. You can find it in his columns post-presidency. He spoke of uncertainty.

If you’re reading this, you’re taking advantage of Coolidge’s concept of normalcy in a very different context. The internet is built on normalcy. Packets are packets, traffic is traffic, and different application protocols expect lower-level protocols to act as specified at all times. The creation built upon these simple ideas, upon normalcy, is easily humanity’s largest by a vast margin. Yet there is no edifice called “The Internet”, no building that makes it all work. It is a distributed network of components all playing by the same rules.*

So it was with the American economy under Coolidge. After a decade of tumult resulting from progressive leadership, the US economy got eight blessed years of normalcy. With this diminished uncertainty, companies were free to invest. The economy boomed and even the poor man was better off in 1928 than in 1920.

Then, in response to the crash of 1929, a round of “bold experiments” (to borrow FDR’s phrase) were undertaken upon the economy by Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Congresses of the era for the next decade and a half. These experiments caused untold economic devastation by distorting markets, increasing uncertainty, and causing those who had capital to hoard and protect it, eventually causing Roosevelt to pursue an undistributed profits tax to shake this capital loose from unwilling businesses. Even during the Second World War, while the US was not statistically in a depression, the standard of living was still poor in comparison to the normalcy of the 1920s.

The experiments, in every empirical sense, were a failure. But with the help of writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who Dionne quotes approvingly as an admirer of Burke), these failures were pawned off on the American people as successes and the role that predictability and normalcy play in prosperity forgotten.

Today, we face an economic crisis built upon government interventions into and distortions of the private economy. Despite the Obama administration focusing on jobs, there has been no improvement for the millions who have been chronically unemployed for years. The Democrats’ bold experiment with banking, the Dodd-Frank law, has driven the poor away from banks as they killed off free services. The Democrats’ bold experiment with health care is already driving up costs for millions while making full-time jobs hard to come by for hourly workers. Look at any problem in the US economy today and at its root you will find a bold experiment from Washington, D.C.

The message I have for all Americans is to ignore Dionne (good advice in any case) and his plea to embrace Burke. It’s time to embrace Coolidge and pursue a course of radical normalcy.
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*For those who don’t remember, one of the major arguments against SOPA and PIPA were that they legislated a change in the architecture of the internet that broke the DNS protocol. This endangered the functioning of the entire network by disrupting the rules upon which countless other technologies depended. A perfect illustration of the need for normalcy in a complex, distributed system.

Our Democracy

Barack Obama tells graduates at Ohio University today:

Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

Perhaps those voices are on to something… Here’s Alcee Hastings on “our” democracy:

“When the deal goes down, uh… All this talk about, uh… rules? We make ’em up, as we go along.”

Thus it was that Obamacare was never passed in full by the House. Pelosi made up the rules as she went along. The will of the American people was expressly ignored by Democrats in Congress to inflict Obamacare on us. In fact, we the people had to pass the bill to find out what was in it, according to Pelosi.

It was funny (and not a little terrifying) to see how quickly “our” democracy bent to Obama’s will. Then the system of checks and balances came into play to claim a little of the Democrats’ power. Now, after an embarrassing attempt to pass new gun controls on his own, Barack Obama gets up an preaches seriously about our democracy. In other words, when Congress misbehaves, it’s our democracy. Heh.

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