Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Bipartisanship Dodge

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Meh.  He was an obnoxious old bastard who always
had onions tied on his belt.
Two fantasies inform mainstream political opinion.  Both are counterproductive and utterly mythical, and both indicate both a deep misunderstanding and a profound fear of real democracy.  But it has always been that way with the wealthy and powerful.  When they are no longer subject to the same kind of oppression and abuse that poor and the powerless endure every day, the kinds of constitutional protections and the rule of law on which democracies are based become impediments to the accumulation and maintenance of power, and a preference for a more arbitrary, authoritarian ideology begins to emerge among the elites.

The first fantasy is the stated desire for a pointless and irrelevant bipartisanship.  We have two political parties with radically different ideologies and governing philosophies.  We hold elections in which we select which political vision we prefer in the near term.  Once we select that vision, why would we then insist that the defeated philosophy be included in the governing agenda?  If we demand that our political leadership govern on the basis of a "one from column A, one from column B" political model, it's unclear what the point of an election might be.

Our system is inherently partisan, structured as it is around two competing approaches to governing.  Over the years those approaches have hardened and crystallized into the two general political ideologies we see today, and have been adopted by their respective political parties.  Over time, the old liberal Northern Republicans and Conservative Southern Democrats have switched their party allegiance, to the point now where a politician's political party is pretty much a perfect predictor of his or her politics. Around the world, this condition is most commonly present in a Parliamentary system, where the party that wins the election forms a government that is by definition a legislative majority and simply implements its agenda.  There are no negotiations - the opposition is simply out of power, left to criticize and complain until the next election.  You hear very little talk of "bipartisanship" in a Parliamentary system.

But here in the US, our elites have decided, quite arbitrarily and with little in the way of supporting evidence, that only legislation that passes with bipartisan support has any democratic legitimacy.  This, of course, is a problem as the parties themselves are so deeply polarized, particularly by the radical, extreme right wing positions adopted by the Republicans, that at this point NO bill can pass both houses with significant bipartisan support, creating a condition where, we are told, we simply cannot legitimately govern.  Now this may make compelling political advertising, but in a system so obsolete and poorly designed for modern governance, it merely cements the systemic dysfunction and ensures no problem can actually be solved in any meaningful way.

The second fantasy is the related demand for "centrist" solutions.  This is nonsensical on many levels, but primarily seems to define the quality of ideas not by what they actually propose to accomplish, but rather by where they fall on the ideological spectrum.  It seems completely self-defeating to demand that government address hard problems but then immediately limit the available solutions to those that meet an arbitrary set of ideological criteria.  But even beyond that, in today's charged political atmosphere, what would actually constitute a 'centrist' solution?  In the US Congress, any solution that requires either deficit spending or increases in government revenue are non-starters, so it becomes quite apparent that, with any fiscal compromise off the table, no legislation anywhere near the center can pass.  In the negotiations over the stimulus package in 2009, the Republican Senator Susan Collins agreed to vote for the bill in exchange for a reduction in spending of a nice, round $100 billion.  No real specific demands, just an almost random number.  Now, this did make the bill somewhat bipartisan, but was it somehow more 'centrist'?  It's hard to see how that could be.

Interestingly, the only real solution to the current dysfunction and inability to govern, short of completely restructuring our system of governance is to utterly abandon both these concepts.  In the current polarized environment, the only way that anything can happen, regardless of ideology, is for one party to win a massive majority in both houses of congress and the White House.  Only when either party can force through their ideological agenda on a purely partisan basis will any kind of action be taken.  Now, these may be awful solutions, or they may bring about a new American dawn, but the ground truth in our system is that all the power is in partisanship.
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Friday, June 29, 2012

War. Huh! What Is It Good For?

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Hey!  Infographics are cool, Dammit!
Conventional wisdom is crystallizing around an Israeli attack on Iran late this summer or in the fall, in the months leading up to the American election in November.  The argument goes that the Israelis will wait for the last round of diplomatic talks between the Islamic Republic and the so-called P5+1 to fail, as they can then claim they started a war as a "last resort", and then, before the bad weather closes in, but close enough to the November US Presidential election that Obama's hands will be tied, they will launch a series of airstrikes on nuclear and defense facilities in Iran.  They will operate at a very high operational tempo for the first 72 hours and then, with munitions depleted, casualties mounting and a diverse Iranian retaliatory response causing them to reallocate their forces, they will demand the US and perhaps the UK and France join the fighting to at least suppress the Iranian counterattacks.

But trying to determine under what circumstances and timing would the Israelis launch a war with Iran might very well be asking the wrong question.  It seems more important to me to try and determine if the Israelis would EVER decide it was in their interests to start that war.  Now, obviously, if you take the Israeli position at face value, and accept that they truly believe that a nuclear armed Iran would represent an existential threat to the Israeli state and its population, than there is no question here to be asked.  They would clearly arrive at the conclusion that, at some point, regardless of the risks and costs, a war to prevent the Iranians from developing weapons, even if only temporarily, makes sense.

But there's a fairly compelling basis to believe that the Israelis are lying.  If anything is glaringly obvious, it is that there is no benefit outside of mere survival that would accrue from a war with Iran.  It would cost billions, kill thousands, inflame global opinion, strengthen the Iranian regime, and sink the global economy.  You might choose to accept those consequences if the alternative was annihilation, but in any other scenario you would have to be both stupid and insane to choose that path.  It is generally accepted that there is no formal Iranian nuclear weapons development program, the IAEA inspectors are in place, and while there are some disagreements over some inspections and protocols, there is a robust consensus that the Iranians have not diverted any fissile material from the civilian program, which, unlike American allies India, Pakistan and Israel, they are entitled to operate as NPT signatories.

So why would Israel create this massive fiction that a war is iminent?  Politics.  Politically, Israel is crumbling into increasingly incompatible factions.  There is a large bloc of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who are mostly secular but who have a powerful racial hatred for Arabs, particularly Palestinian Arabs.  There is a fundamentalist religious political wing in ascendency, and in a Jewish state no government can survive without appeasing their more extreme demands.  There is a mainstream right wing Likud government bloc, led by men who came of age in the crucible of regular horrific wars of national survival.  They view all regional challenges through a military prism, and tend to define political and diplomatic conflicts and their resolution in terms of warfare.  And there is the traditional, large secular liberal Jewish mainstream, who have the power and wealth to drive Israeli politics in the direction they choose.  Confronted with these domestic political challenges, Netanyahu and the Likud leadership has created the broadly accepted perception of a crazed enemy, one bent on nothing short of the utter destruction of the nation of Israel and the murder of all her people.  As long as this narrative can be convincingly sold to the Israeli electorate, the governing coalition retains essentially unfettered power to enact whatever policies it wishes.

So if we make the assumption for a moment that the 'threat' posed by Iran was manufactured for political purposes, the next question is what might cause that narrative to lose its utility?  Well, the Iranians could announce they were giving up their nuclear program entirely, right?  Maybe not.  With complete international consensus that there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Netanyahu government just accuses them of lying and hiding the program, and for some reason the world continues to give the Israeli leadership the benefit of the doubt.  As long as the Israeli leadership wanted the Iranians to serve as the regional boogeyman, they would continue to claim the Iranians were only "six months away from building a bomb".  But what if Israel actually attacked?  What then?  Well, missiles would rain on Israel from Iran, from Gaza, from Syria and from a newly hostile Lebanon.  Terrorists would strike Israeli targets both in Israel and around the world.  Newly energized, funded and armed groups would infiltrate from Egypt, Lebanon, anywhere they could.  Nations in Europe, Latin America and the mid-east would react with outrage at the agression, costing Israel allies and commerce.  The price of oil would skyrocket, driving the global economy into recession and further damaging the Israeli economy.  If the costs of the war, both in blood and treasure are great enough, the Israeli people will blame Netanyahu and his government, and it will be ousted from power.  If the narrative of the Iranian threat was a political contrivance, it could very well be one that cannot survive if the Israeli leadership were to actually act on that threat.

Ultimately, there's no way to make a practical judgement on the question of whether the Netanyahu government is actually willing to start a war with a nation as large and powerful as Iran.  As we discussed earlier, it all comes down to whether they truly believe their own rhetoric about Iran or whether that rhetoric is merely political, targeted on a domestic audience.  It's also one of those 'one-way' questions - if the Israelis do start a war with Iran, we'll know they beleived that the nuclear threat was greater than the costs of a potentially prolonged, multi-front war.  But as long as they keep threatening and not acting, we won't know either way for sure.
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

...While the Worst are Full of Passionate Intensity

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I really don't have any idea what I
think about that...
Consider two facts about the upcoming Presidential election:

1.) It appears that it will be quite a close run thing, with the eventual winner finishing with slim victory in the popular vote and quite likely coming down to another bruising battle for the electoral votes of just one or two key states.

2.) Mitt Romney's campaign is an absurd joke, a ridiculous amalgamation of outright lies and fuzzy half-truths, vague, ambiguous or unstated positions on key policies, a childish mantra of blaming Obama for everything that ever happened and an odd tendency to projection, wherein the Romney campaign does something vile and immediately accuses the Obama campaign of doing that same vile thing.

Now ask yourself:  How can these things both be true?  How can a man running for President who has so blatantly changed his position on EVERYTHING to pander to whatever constituency he happens to be speaking to, who utterly refuses to say what he'll do if elected, who claims that running a private equity firm somehow gives him some special insight that will make him a better elected leader, how can this wealthy white fundamentalist bigot be taken even remotely seriously?  When I see Willard speak on TeeVee, I just keep waiting for the punch line.  He's GOT to be a parody - his entire campaign is an over-the-top sendup of every arrogant, venal, grasping, desperate little candidate for a city council seat we've ever poked fun at.

And yet, somehow, in spite of his massive disapproval ratings, his endless blunders that expose just how out of the American mainstream he is, and his bizarre digressions into everything from trees to donuts he is running a competitive campaign that has a genuine chance to win the election.  The mind reels.  That would seem to indicate that virtually half the American population either supports the current Romney agenda, which is essentially GW Bush with a severe head injury, or has come to hate Barack Obama so deeply that no collateral damage is unacceptable in bringing about his ouster from office.  That hatred for a specific President can be very powerful - I have always believed that it was the loathing and disgust that accrued from 8 years of Bush that delivered the White House to Obama - and is exactly the kind of incentive that can bring otherwise rational people to believe blatantly, demonstrably false things.

Right now, the Ridiculous Romney Roadshow is propped up by the conservative echo chamber of Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh AM Radio, providing support for the lies, cover for the unwillingness to admit to having actual policy positions, vitriolic denunciations of President Obama and a daily dose of outrage, fear and hate that can keep a population energized and motivated.  Alongside that is the unprecedented corporate money behind a Romney administration that is widely expected to serve as a lapdog to unfettered corporate interests - NPR yesterday said the Romney campaign expects to spend in excess of $1.2 Billion, ensuring that while the office of the Presidency is now up for sale, it will only be sold to the "right kind" of people.

But one wonders how well the odd, idiosyncratic Romney candidacy will age as things heat up in the fall.  His history at Bain Capital will never be popular with working people of any ilk, and as more details of how that wealth was generated become known, his professional background, long considered to be one of his biggest strengths, may become something of a liability.  But after the nominating conventions, as we get into debate season, it might very well be his refusal to state what his policy positions actually are, what actions he would take, what budgetary decisions he would make, what his specific legislative goals would be that costs him the most votes.  In this day and age, when everybody has an opinion on everything, a certain strategic ambiguity is desirable, but, if the number one goal of the campaign is to avoid making ANYONE angry rather than advancing a specific political agenda, at some point the campaign starts to look weak and fearful.  And while that won't have much of an impact on the votes of the hardcore Obama Haters, it will certainly cause those trying to make a good faith decision to reconsider their choice.

I don't know.  Ultimately, I have the utmost confidence in Americans to be led like distracted sheep to make the worst possible decisions for themselves and their nation, but at some point you have to believe there are limits to ignorance and hatred.  Eventually, in order to be elected President of the United States, you should have to be something more that "the white guy" -  you should have more to offer the electorate than corporate subsidies, worsening inequality and a profound willingness to heap additional misery on all the usual suspects.  But it seems that in reality, anything beyond race, religion, class and tribe is just too complex for the average American, and simply will not be a factor in choosing a political leadership.  It makes one wonder if the rest of the world is laughing at us or recoiling in horror.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

America, It Turns Out, IS Exceptional

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Oh look - the insurance premium
must be due...
So, on the eve of the Supreme Court's decision on America's meager attempt to provide health care to her citizens, we hold out very little hope.  Ultimately, the highest court in the land will likely expose itself as the purely ideological body it has become, but it seems unlikely that it might do the kind of irreparable harm to American democratic governance that was done by the foul Bush v. Gore or the purely political Citizens United decisions.

So while it seems almost inevitable that the Roberts Court will overturn the individual mandate, much of the remaining provisions of the ACA will probably survive intact, leaving an untenable legislative dilemma and a dysfunctional Congress utterly unable to address it.  But at the same time, it will reopen the key question that, at some point, America is going to have to answer: Just what do we believe is the government's role in providing health care services to her citizens?  Every other modern nation has already answered that question, both because it is basic and essential and because it is generally accepted that the well being of the population is of greater value and importance than corporate profits.  Some nations provide single payer health services, where the government runs the hospitals and employs the doctors, while others look to private insurers and health care providers to provide the services, but they are carefully regulated and required to provide services to all.  In the US we have had, up until now, the worst of both worlds - a rapacious health insurance industry and a private health care services sector that, due to its insistance on excessive profits, is by far the most expensive in the world.

It is appalling to consider that in America we have decided, collectively, that health care is a priviledge, one that must be earned, and American citizens must be allowed to become sick and even die if they cannot be profitable customers for this vast array of greedy corporations all ghoulishly holding out the promise of medical treatment if the patient can only come up with the money they demand.  Is this really the system we want?  A ruthlessly barbaric system where you can be denied treatment and left to die for no other reason than the treatment you need would reduce your profit value as a customer?  Why on earth would we want that?  There is certainly a reason why no other industrialized nation on earth embraces our "Pay or Die" approach to health care for their citizens.

Before the madness truly took hold of the American Political Right, the argument between left and right in the US could be boiled down to a fairly basic question of the role of government.  Those of us on the more liberal side looked around and saw places where the market simply failed, where industry was unable or unwilling to provide important, even necessary services, and believed that government should provide those services, and we would set revenues to cover their costs.  The conservatives, on the other hand, felt that private industry could better provide most services, and that the role of government should be more limited.  A disagreement, to be sure, but one you could have logically, about any given set of services, from education to infrastructure to big science to, yes, health care.  But now the Right has lost its bearings, and as it continues its headlong dash from Republicanism toward fascism it has ceased to be a conversation about specific government services at all.  Instead, it has become a desperate ideological quest to protect every last dollar of wealth in the hands of every rich American and every Corporation - to prevent ANY money from going to any government program.  A kind of an unsustainable scorched earth war on behalf of a tiny portion of the population against America itself.

So just as America has decided to stand alone in the world as the one nation who believes in allowing her citizens an unfettered right to as much lethal firepower as they can buy, in a gigantic, bizarre social experiment where a huge population divided by sectarian, racial and class hatred have a greater ability to wage war on one another than most militaries do, the US has also chosen to insist that her citizens, no matter how sick or desperate, must pay for medical treatment or go untreated.  So when you hear someone once again droning on about American Exceptionalism, just remember it is in the context of "the exception to the rule" rather than "better than all others" that they speak.
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EGAD! A Whole Bunch of Silly, Pointless New TLDs!

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What are words for, when no one listens anymore?
I've been around Silicon Valley for a long time now, and in the course of those decades I've developed a pretty good grasp on technology.  So when someone floats a new business idea, a new product or service, I can usually figure out what they were thinking, even when the idea itself was silly, wrongheaded, or just another bald-faced money grab.

So when ICANN announced the applicants for the new gTLD program a couple weeks ago, it was pretty clear that somebody misses the endless stream of free money that has been generated by domain registrations, and wanted a way to re-open that spigot.  But beyond that, I was left kind of scratching my head.  What problem is this supposed to solve?  Have the domain names and resultant URLs gotten so complicated that we can no longer find the web pages we're looking for?  Well that sure doesn't seem to be the case, but it does make us realize that we don't actually type in URLs anymore.  We use search engines, links and bookmarks - in other words, we click,we don't type.  Is there content we'd have that we don't have now if we had new TLDs?  Unlikely - we have plenty of apps even without the .app gTLD, and we don't seem to lack for web content from Google or Apple even though they both have to use that good old standby, .com instead of .apple or .google.  Would the web suddenly have a bunch of cool new sites if only they could be set up under a .cool domain?  Doubtful.

So essentially, it's an opportunity for companies to pay millions more for a different address to the pages they already have.  The amazing thing is not that ICANN made such an offer, but that our supposedly brilliant business elite has leaped at the opportunity to spend that money.  The Internet continues to provide proof that PT Barnum was right, if a little understated.

But then I looked at the list of gTLDs from the formal application process.  I'm not sure why we need both an .xxx TLD to help protect kids AND a .catholic Domain that would presumably serve the same purpose.  And what would be the use case for .kosher?  Can a website BE kosher?  It's sad that we've had to go this long without having access to the .ketchup Top Level Domain, because that's where I'd want all my sites to be.  But frankly, I can only cringe when I think about who might want to use a .cool URL, and let's face it, .secure is just a REALLY bad idea because half the people in the world will think it IS, while the other half will be registering .secure sites to rip them off.  And in the end, there's a .vodka TLD but nobody thought to apply for .zombie, so the process is obviously inherently flawed.
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

There Goes the Neighborhood...

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Just not a whole lot of friends in the neighborhood
Bashir al-Assad and his Alawite Baath party are desperately holding on to power in the face of determined Arab Spring protest that has devolved into a bloody civil war.  Having made the calculation that he is willing to kill his way out of his most dire political challenge, there is really nothing he and his inner circle won't do to retain their political power.  Strategically, once you have crossed that last Rubicon and left behind your humanity, then the process becomes a simple one of analyzing the forces arrayed against you and determining where best to bring pressure against them.  For despots operating far beyond the pale, like al-Assad, this can include torture, murder, arrest and detention of family members, even snipers and shelling of entire communities.  


But there is a corollary to this sort of unfettered ruthlessness in the name of wealth and power.  The stakes are just as high as they can be.  There are three possible outcomes: Successful retention of power, war crimes prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or a hard death at the hands of the people you brutalized.  There are no other options, and you have to be perfect - if you make a mistake, if you mis-calculate, mis-calibrate or mis-step, the game is over and the fall is a long one.  


Syria is politically and diplomatically isolated, and any residual willingness among her neighbors to live and let live dissipated long ago in the blood and fire of Homs.  Today she finds herself surrounded by hostile nations and governments, explicitly calling for regime change and even actively supporting the rebels fighting to topple the Baath government.  While the al-Assad regime continues to receive support from Russia and Iran, they can do little but control events at the United Nations.  The most important thing for the Baath leadership at this point is to keep the revolution and civil war as an internal matter, with as little regional or international involvement as possible.  Anything that serves to 'internationalize' the conflict empowers the rebels and weakens the regime.


Which brings us to the utterly inexplicable events of Friday.  There is no aerial threat to the Syrian leadership.  The only air force attacking Syrian territory currently is the Syrian air force.  This is clearly not the time for the regime to throw its weight around, picking fights with it's richer and better-armed neighbors.  But whether somebody didn't get the memo and went off the reservation, or whether Bashir al-Assad is insane, a Syrian anti-aircraft battery shot down a Turkish F4 over the Mediterranean.  There has been extensive back-and-forth over whether the Turkish fighter violated Syrian airspace, but that's just a red herring - whether it did or did not, it was almost unspeakably stupid for the Syrian government to choose now to antagonize Turkey, and in so doing, NATO.  It makes it that much more difficult for Russia to continue to protect Syrian interests in the UN, and it opens the door to virtually any form of military action even without a UN Resolution, as it can now be couched in terms of retaliation.  


So what will the Erdo─čan government ultimately do?  We can't know the specifics yet, but the important way to answer that question is "anything they want to".  Because that's what al-Assad has invited with this pointless aggression.  Anything Turkey wanted to do, from airstrikes to a humanitarian corridor inside Syria, they now can do.  Syria has no control over what happens next, and importantly, neither do her few remaining allies.  It does seem that Turkey is starting to see herself as the regional superpower, and as such an occasional opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to effectively use military power might be welcome as part of that strategy.
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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Higgs - Squisite Timing

...
Whoop - There It Is...
Despite an unusual and somewhat corrosive institutional secrecy, it is increasingly likely that CERN physicists will announce the "discovery" of the Higgs Boson at the ICHEP conference next month in Australia.  This will make science geeks like me very happy, and we'll spend hours digging through the data they release, but at the same time the announcement will receive a lot of hype, and we'll see a lot of people with expensive haircuts "explaining" the Standard Model and the implications of the discovery of the Higgs in grossly dumbed-down terms that will honestly sound like the scraping of fingernails on a chalkboard.  So here's a few things I think are important:

1.) This is not a discovery, not in any real sense, but rather a confirmation.  The Standard Model has been such an accurate predictor of the properties of matter that the existence of the Higgs, as a key part of the Standard Model, is really a near-certainty.  Obviously, you can't state unequivocally that the particle exists without actually seeing it, but in terms of breakthrough discoveries the interesting part is not so much the particle itself as determining its mass and characteristics.

2.) We've already observed the Higgs.  High energy physics is a statistical process, where you have to see something enough times to determine that it is an actual phenomenon, and not just spurious noise.  The Higgs signal was there in the data from last years LHC run at 7Tev, with a confidence of 3 sigmas, or 3 Standard deviations - about 99.7% confidence.  However, that's not considered enough certainty in the physics community to make an announcement - for that they need to look at a lot more data and see the event with a confidence of 5 sigmas.  But in reality, if something is 99.7% certain, it's fair to say that it's real.

3.) The Higgs is not a Baryon or Lepton - that is, it's not a particle in the sense of a Proton, a Neutron or an Electron.  The Standard Model addresses not only the elementary particles, but the elementary forces of nature, and there is a class of particles, called Bosons, that carry and mediate those forces.  The Higgs is the most massive of the Standard Model Bosons, mediating the Higgs Field in order to impart mass to matter.  In other words, it's not so much "stuff" as it is one of the properties of "stuff".

I very much hope we can get the Higgs announcement behind us now.  There is so much interesting physics to be done at LHC, and once we are routinely working with the Higgs Boson we will have a chance to learn how it works, and start working on much harder problems that we genuinely don't know the answer to.  LHC will finish it's 2012 run at 8TeV energies, then shut down for a couple years to upgrade the hardware necessary to run at its rated capacity of 14TeV.

These mind-boggling energies will open the way for humans to begin to answer even more fundamental questions such as SuperSymmetry, Dark Matter and someday, maybe, some mechanism to connect Relativity and Gravity to Quantum Mechanics.  This represents the highest accomplishment of humans and their governing institutions, the investment of national wealth and treasure into a massive project that serves no profit motive, but unlocks the secrets of the universe for no other reason than the basic human quest for knowledge.

One more thing.  In the course of the discussions of the Higgs Boson this summer, you will hear a great deal of discussion of things like string theory and multiple universes.  It is very important to understand that, in spite of the way they will be presented, these are NOT science.  These are elegant mathematical theories that make no testable predictions and cannot be falsified.  They are very smart people noodling about things we cannot know, but they serve no real purpose in the world of science.  Despite the convictions of advocates such as Laura Mersini-Houghton, it is by definition impossible to take measurements of something outside our universe.
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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Democracy's Weakest Link

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That's the thing about a hammer - you can use it
to build stuff or break stuff...
What are the markers of a true democracy?  We tend to focus on elections, but this is clearly a misjudgment.  Elections are often tampered with, particularly by the governing party or the military, and even when they are fair they are subject to the "Tyranny of the Majority" that in many circumstances often precludes true democratic freedom.  A genuine lack of censorship, on both the people and the press, the ability to say what you believe about the political leadership without fear of intimidation or arbitrary punishment is certainly a clear indication of the amount of liberty enjoyed by the people, but after what we've seen during the "Occupy" protests in the US over the last year, this is not a condition that actually exists to any great extent in the real world.  So either we conclude that there are very few real democracies left in the world (something we should be deeply concerned about in light of global trends), or we need a more broadbased metric.

Ultimately, it is probably fair to say that the truest indication of a genuine democratic government is the independence of the Judiciary.  Judges should stand apart from the political process, and they should be immune to both influence and intimidation.  Because of the absolute power a nation's highest court must be prepared to wield, corrupting or co-opting them provides a non-democratic or authoritarian government with the ability to avert political challenges with an air of legitimacy.  But when the justices serve honestly and with impeccable integrity they stand between the government and the governed to make certain that the rules are followed and the flowery language of justice and equality often found in the constitution is not undermined or simply ignored.

So it is disturbing to see, as part of an overall authoritarian trend in democratic governance around the world, the decline of the independent judiciary.  In many cases we are starting to see the judges, even in the highest courts, choose up political sides and make decisions based on ideology or a perceived pragmatism rather than strictly on the law and legal precedent.  The United States arguably ceased being a democracy that day in 2000 when the Supreme Court, in an unnecessary and grotesque overreach chose the American President, overruling the votes of the American people.  In the intervening years we have seen the odious Citizens United decision, and now stand on the precipice of the decision on the Individual Mandate in the ACA.  At this point, it's becoming clear that all around the world real democracy is in retreat, and yet rather than simply transitioning to another iron-fisted dictatorship, a number of hybrid models are emerging, none of them truly free, but all seeking to continue to wear the mantle of "democratic government".  Why not just throw out all the trappings of democracy and rule as a President for Life, the non-dynastic equivalent of a Monarchy?  The answer is, in a word, wealth.  Nations that empower their people to educate themselves, to build businesses and create innovative products are wealthier, more powerful nations.  North Korea stands in stark contrast to modern China, making clear the advantages inherent in providing the population with "just enough" freedom.

Most commonly now, there is the Russian/Chinese model, where the government grants to the people a great deal of freedom to pursue education, careers, wealth and personal fulfillment.  Entrepreneurship is encouraged, infrastructure developed and the quality of life does, in fact, increase.  The other side of that bargain is that the people are shut out from participating in their own governance, told with very little ambiguity that they are NOT part of the governance process, and their input in the decision making process is unwelcome.

Then there is the Iranian model, structured in the outcome of the Khomeini revolution.  The leaders of the revolution were happy to let the people govern themselves, but as they still insisted upon the prerogatives of a Theocracy, they merely created a body that could, whenever they deemed necessary, overrule the elected leadership.  So in most cases, the government functions as a democracy, but it is not one, as there is a higher authority that has the ultimate authority.  Sadly, in the years since Khomeini's death the Iranian regime has drifted from Theocratic Democracy to Theocratic Military Dictatorship, to the point where they now even feel it necessary to rig the election outcomes.  But their model remains as an option for many states that will be pressured to move from monarchy to some kind of democratic government.  In places like Pakistan and Turkey we're watching the democratically elected civilian governments in a tug-of-war with the military for ultimate authority, with the military always having at its disposal a trump card - a coup.  It is axiomatic that all nations stand at risk from their own militaries - indeed, it is nothing but the military's own institutions that determine whether the Generals see themselves as subservient to the civilian political leadership, or dominant over it.

It seems as if the era of the embrace of liberal democracy as the preferred form of governance is ending.  What's replacing it isn't completely clear yet, but the trend is toward a kind of corporate/government partnership with a strong surveillance state and a level and mix of government services calibrated to best support corporate profits.  Perhaps a kind of "Fascism Lite" where political opposition is strangled and those in power seek a sort of equilibrium calibrated to provide them with maximum power and maximum profits.  In this model, the people are given enough freedom to earn an income and generally govern themselves, particularly at the local level, but they will not be permitted to influence the national government nor make important economic, political and foreign policy decisions.
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Friday, June 22, 2012

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

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LeBron Takes (a) Charge...
As many of you might have noticed, I am a fan of the televised sporting event.  As a form of in-home entertainment, it is near perfect for mikey HQ, meeting my needs and expectations while providing a minimum of annoyance.  The problem, if it can rightfully be called one, is that as much as I enjoy many of the events (there are some sports I just find unwatchable - I'm looking at you, hockey), I am really only invested in two teams.  Born and raised in Marin County in Northern California, I live and die by the San Francisco Giants and The San Francisco Forty Niners.  When those teams are playing, that is the game I watch, and I'll pay pretty close attention (except during my mandatory in-game nap, of course).  But when the game on the TeeVee is between two different teams, I'll still watch it, and I'll still find it entertaining, but I go into the experience with no real interest in which team will win.  This tends to make the games less interesting, so over the years I've developed a methodology to determine which team to root for.

There are lots of teams I don't like.  Whether it's due to a historical rivalry with a San Francisco team, a particularly venal ownership, a loathing for a specific player or just a knee-jerk dislike for the organization, by this point in my life all the teams that play major league sports that I like to watch exist on a continuum of hatred.  With some it burns with the fire of a thousand suns, while with others I just get slightly irritable and toss out the occasional desultory insult.  But the net result is, when watching games that do not include the Giants or the Forty Niners, I find that I am actually rooting against a particular outcome rather than for a team to win.

Which brings us to the recently concluded NBA playoffs this year.  I usually don't watch regular season NBA games - at most, watching the last five minutes, which takes half an hour, is sufficient - but I really enjoy the playoffs.  The seven game series' develop a narrative all their own, and each game either changes or reinforces that narrative in a way I find fascinating.  And this year, the finals were everything I could have wished for.  Oklahoma City, an almost likable small market team, with the shy Durant, the fiery Westbrook and Harden's fabulous beard, against the detestable bullies, the Yankees of the NBA, the Miami Heat with the gifted but arrogant LeBron, the eternally unhappy Wade and the Camp Follower Bosh.

Going in, I really thought OKC would win.  Miami had a history of falling apart in the bright lights, and OKC had so much talent up and down the bench that it would be a case of 8-on-3 for 48 minutes and hey, you take the 8 every single time, right?  Well, so much for that line of reasoning.  Don't think so much, you'll only hurt the ball club.

So it was kind of painful to watch, and it certainly wasn't an outcome that left me laughing and celebrating, but there was something kind of enjoyable and uplifting watching LeBron James finally growing into the shoes he's been trying to wear for seven years.  It has always made for the best of sports drama to watch someone who just simply refuses to lose.  So, with the NBA finals at long last behind us, we have the Olympics up next and then baseball's stretch run.  And there is no televised sporting event more fun than September baseball...
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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dueling Mandates

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What do you people WANT from me?
Imagine, if you will, two lots side by side in suburban America.  On one is a nice home, fully furnished and artfully landscaped.  Next door is a vacant lot of the same size.  Now, suppose I told gave you a robust set of resources and I told you you had two equivalent tasks.  First, you needed to build a nice new house on the vacant lot.  But equally important, you had to make absolutely certain that the house on the other lot didn't burn down.

There are a variety of ways you could bring your available tools and resources to bear on these tasks, as you've been instructed that it is nothing less than your job description to accomplish both.  But considering one is a LOT more resource intensive and requires a great deal more immediate action, it would make sense to focus your attention on building the new house.  Oh, you could send a few guys over and station them around the house, watching for the first telltale signs of smoke.  You could send over a team with some funds to place heat sensors around the house.  You could even send some expert safety inspectors over to make certain that there wasn't any unnoticed fire hazards anywhere on the property.  With that, the rest of the team could be allocated to begin building the new house.  You'd do something like that because, in light of the basic goal of accomplishing both tasks simultaneously, it would make sense to focus heavily on the task furthest from completion.

The Federal Reserve has, at the core of its mission, a "dual mandate".  Their role is to ensure price stability, and simultaneously work towards full employment.  Note that one is not given more weight or importance than the other - the Fed is expected, indeed exists, to produce both outcomes at all times.  Now, if one half of the dual mandate is well in hand, indeed being exceeded every quarter, and the other is a disaster area, it would make sense to commit more resource to the crisis than to the success story.  Of course, the interesting thing about the Fed's dual mandate is the interrelationship between inflation and full employment.  Obviously, when you approach full employment, there is much more demand, resources become scarce and wages and prices go up.  Conversely, when large numbers of people are out of work, there is downward pressure on wages and prices tend to fall when demand is weak.  So if the Fed were to actually focus on increasing employment, inflation would increase somewhat - but that's ok - the mandate is to try to accomplish BOTH, not accomplish one and ignore the other.

So as the American economic condition worsens yet again, it is appalling to note that the Fed yesterday decided, once again, to do nothing about unemployment.  They did announce a symbolic extension to "Operation Twist", an Open Market Operation intended to lower long term interest rates that will have no measurable effect on employment.  All around the country you could hear the jaws drop.  Literally everyone who is not named Willard Romney hoped and expected the announcement of some genuine expansionary monetary policy changes from Bernacke, and collectively we were left stammering as we tried to explain why the Federal Reserve might, at this point in the depression, once again refuse to act on their 'second' mandate.  How could this even happen?  Why would they choose not to act?  For that matter, what WILL it take for the Fed to take action to reduce unemployment?

I think there are two answers to this - one structural, one ideological. The structural argument is pretty simple - why did Bernacke do nothing once again?  Because he CAN.  The concept under which the Federal Reserve operates is one of the "Independent Central Bank".  The idea is the bank operates outside of political influence, thus preventing political leaders from using the bank to reward backers and punish the opposition.  The Central Bankers are well aware of this debate, but there is simply no pressure, no motivation, no incentive for them to do anything they don't want to.

Ok, sure.  But why don't they want to?  That's the ideological part.  Who are Central Bankers?  They are wealthy financiers and economists, and the constituency they both represent and belong to is one of the wealthy and powerful - what we have come to call the 1%.  So consider their options.  If they took actions that reduced unemployment to 5%, in the course of which saw inflation rise to 5%, who would benefit?  Well, the people with the jobs, and the people who sell them houses and cars and food and pizza. Working people, families, communities. Who would lose?  People who have a great deal of wealth, who don't make their income by earning wages.  Inflation acts directly to reduce the purchasing power of money - the more money you have, the more inflation costs you.  In this case, the 1% would lose while the great majority of everyday Americans would gain tremendously.  In the other scenario, the one we are watching play out now, inflation is well below even the 2% target, protecting the value of the wealth of the wealthy.  And who suffers?  Just folks - many of them the wrong color, the wrong politics, the wrong religion.  The suffering of the poor and the middle class is a feature, not a bug.  If there were fewer of them, the unemployment rate would go down all by itself, even as they were less of a drag on society.

So when you hear about another Federal Reserve meeting where they decided, once again to do nothing, and Ben Bernacke announced that decision in a grave voice with a long paragraph of economic double-speak, don't just shrug your shoulders and think none of this applies to you.  They are making a conscious decision to ruin tens of millions of lives in order to protect a few percent of wealth for the richest people in the world.  I often ask, somewhat rhetorically, what it might take to get the American people out in the streets, but at this point the answer seems to be, pathetically, that there is no betrayal we are unwilling to accept from our leaders.
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Obama's Second Term - A Foolish Consistency or a Risk-Free Do-Over?

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When can I see the Kill List?
It's certainly not the foregone conclusion it appeared to be earlier this year, but I still think Barack Obama's reelection is the likeliest potential outcome in November.  I don't think the National Popular vote will be particularly interesting, but I think we could, once again, come down to one or two states battling over their electoral votes.

But stepping away from the political horse race for a moment (at some point you have to go get a Mint Julep), just what might we expect from a second Obama term?  I have read much that was upbeat and hopeful, all in the vein that without the political pressure imposed by an upcoming election, he will be free to let his inner Liberal freak fly, and we will actually see some of that old Kenyan Socialism we've been hearing so much about for the last four years.  I'm not so sure.  I think at this point we know who Barack Obama is, how he perceives his role and what kind of legacy he'd like to leave behind.  Oh, I have no doubt that we'll see a President with a greater sense of political freedom, perhaps with a willingness to take greater political risks to accomplish certain things.  But unlike the hippies-with-unicorns contingent, I'm not sure this does anything to inform his policy choices.  One can just as easily see him summoning the courage to buck the Blue Dogs and the Teabaggers as one can see him flipping a casual bird at the 'Professional Left'.

One does not have to examine Obama's background terribly deeply to reach the conclusion that he is almost certainly a Liberal at the instinctive level.  But the career he chose to pursue is not "liberal activist", it is "national politics", and, as such, he did what any politician must do in order to be successful: he tailored his ideology and his policy agenda to the broadest portion of the electorate.  And in America, that is somewhere to the right of center.  I'm not a political scientist, but even I can see that Americans in general are distrustful of liberals in positions of power - possibly due to the opinions about communism that the American leadership cultivated during the Cold War - and it's hard not to notice that Dennis Kucinich and Jackie Speir, for all their talent, brains and energy, have virtually no future beyond their current positions, whereas Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio don't seem to have a ceiling.

So while I see very little in the way of significant shift in party power in November, with an Obama White House, a Republican House of Representatives and a (barely) Democratic Senate, I do see two almost immediate opportunities for the Democrats to flex a bit of muscle.  First, the Senate will have another opportunity to change the rules before the new Congress is seated, and while I don't see anything close to the elimination of the filibuster altogether, it's certainly possible that they will reduce the almost unlimited power of the individual Senator to stop the legislative process, and perhaps make it possible for the leadership to force floor votes on political appointees and judges.  Second, shortly after the election we will be confronted by another round of Debt Ceiling negotiations.  There are two legal paths Obama could use to win this fight without having it - he could take the position that a debt ceiling is unconstitutional, as the Constitution does not countenance interference with the payment of government debts; or he could order the Treasury to mint a couple trillion dollar platinum coins and deposit them with the Fed to honor payments.  Beyond that, when it comes to Republican loathing and obstruction of anything Obama, well, hold onto your hats - you ain't seen nothing yet.
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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Vote for Me! I Helped Wreck the Economy Too!

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Yeah, but...
There's been a bit of Presidential campaign back and forth over the level of government spending under Obama.  Primarily, this has been driven by a substantial amount of campaign advertising that uses a particular set of metrics to show that the growth of Federal spending under Obama has been quite a bit smaller than it has under any of the previous modern administrations.  In a sense, this was an important and necessary bit of pushback against the accelerating Romney meme that spending has exploded under Obama.  The Obama ads have the benefit of being mostly true, in many of the same ways that the Romney campaign's "conventional wisdom" is mostly false.

But here's the thing.  This is actually one of the worst aspects of Obama's economic record, and to the extent that the President has any control over spending (Hint: He has virtually none) represents a destructive and pointlessly cruel form of economic stewardship.  Government austerity in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is bad enough, but reducing spending at a time when interest rates are at historical lows comes awfully close to criminal negligence.  And with states generally legally bound to balance their budgets, the cuts to state and local workers like firefighters and teachers have been nothing short of draconian.

One of the most valuable uses of Federal stimulus funds was direct economic aid to states.  This allowed the states to keep paying employees, who could keep their houses and continue to buy goods and services, reducing unemployment and keeping the economy from free fall.  It is now obvious that the stimulus bill was far too small, and historians will argue forever whether it might have been larger - say, for example, if Obama had originally asked for a larger amount, and the reductions forced by Congress would have been proportional rather than absolute - but there can be no doubt that substantially more direct state-level federal aid would have been  a boon not just to the national economy, but to thousands of little local economies all over the country.

Ultimately, it is an appalling illustration of the perversity of the political and economic conversation in America today.  Obama knows all too well that this turn to brutal austerity was the worst possible response to the economic collapse, and did immeasurable harm to countless American families.  But this is what we have become - no one is allowed to say what is true because the "American People" have come to believe a set of falsehoods.  They 'know' that when times are lean, the government must "tighten its belt" just the way families must.  They 'know' that stimulus spending doesn't work.  And most of all they 'KNOW' that lowering the national debt is the most important economic imperative, and will lead more quickly than anything else to a recovery.  So, because no one believes for a moment that the people can be educated, that they can be helped to understand the way the world actually works, even the campaign of the incumbent President must tout as a great accomplishment the most damning economic statistic from his first term.
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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stop and Frisk - Life in a Second Amendment Nation

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Up Against the Wall you Redneck Mother
There's very little doubt that Thomas Jefferson would speak out passionately against New York's 'Stop and Frisk' policy, that Patrick Henry would rally his fellow citizens against such an affront, and that very likely George Washington would respond with his fists.  Everything that makes us American, every shred of the values we are inculcated with, every last drop of our understanding of freedom, liberty, civil rights, human dignity and privacy cries out at the outrageous overreach of such an authoritarian policy.  Certainly we are offended by its racial components, but on a much deeper level it brings us into contact with some of our deepest fears about unchecked government power and the ultimate fragility of our national compact with our political leaders.  How far can it be, we wonder, from a nation that allows its law enforcement personnel to simply detain and physically search anyone they deem suspicious and those classic black and white scenes of scowling men in suits on the train, demanding to see your "papers, please"?

But Americans, primarily due to some kind of weird loathing for any sort of compromise solutions, have built a box for themselves here.  Because it has become received wisdom that ANY attempt to control the availability and distribution of firearms, particularly handguns is an unacceptable assault on the integrity of the US Constitution, we find ourselves faced with a most agonizing Hobson's choice:  We find a way to ensure that people in our community are not carrying lethal weapons, or we live in an increasingly violent environment where gunfire in the streets is commonplace, and people die needlessly every day.

I agree that I am uncomfortable with the extra-constitutional nature of these searches, with their arbitrary nature and the opportunity for abuse and discrimination they represent, but at the same time this is the sort of outcome you get when, as a society, we surrender to the lunatics and let them run the asylum.  We could have a viable Second Amendment and still limit the availability of firearms.  We could support lawful gun ownership and restrict when and how they could be carried and transported.  We could impose market based limitations on manufacturing, sales, and transport.  But insanely, we not only refuse to impose the most basic controls and limitations, we have a barking mad political leadership who seek to encourage the ubiquitous possession and even the USE of firearms in our communities.  How can we allow that?

But as long as we do, we have to take SOME kind of action to prevent this flood of deadly weapons from being unleashed on our communities.  It is impossible to consider ourselves an advanced civilization when any idiot, criminal, madman or irresponsible child might be carrying the most lethal, high capacity combat handguns in the world.  So we need to swallow our medicine.  Sure, Stop and Frisk needs close oversight.  It needs to be carefully managed, it needs to be as fair and efficient as possible.  But I understand why a community would impose this sort of law enforcement solution, and as long as we continue to refuse to address the big problems, we're going to be faced with a series of unpleasant choices.
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Monday, June 18, 2012

Who Will Create the Job Creators?

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Here's your jobs.  Would you like a pony with that?
Words.  They're at it again, creating new words and terms, packaging and delivering them fully formed, seeking to define something simplistically as good or evil, all while obscuring any underlying nuance.  Just as anybody who ever put on a uniform is now a "Hero", anybody with a lot of money is now referred to as a "Job Creator".  And while it is far too taxing for anyone in the American political media to actually parse this concept of "Job Creator" and try to understand what it might mean, people from various walks of political life continue to spout the phrase, using it quite flexibly in whatever sense it might contribute to their current economic argument.

But here's the thing.  It really IS a worthwhile exercise to consider what it might mean to have the power to 'create' jobs, what it would entail, and what the alignment of incentives might actually look like.  The first part, which is highly relevant to the current Presidential campaigns, is to cease conflating a government Job Creator with one from the private sector.  This analysis is relevant to American Presidential politics in the sense that, at the core of the debate is the question of whether Willard Romney's rapacious capitalism or Barack Obama's government and community service better suits one or the other for the office in general, and for stewardship of the economy in particular.

The question, and its answer, hinges on the profit motive.  Indeed, private business, for whatever it has historically represented, in the 21st century is entirely about profits.  The quality of a business, the success of its practitioners and the future prospects for all concerned are measured strictly by profits.  These are most often short-term quarterly profits, but however they are presented, a business that does not make money will not be for long a functioning entity.

Government, on the other hand, has no functional interest in profits.  Its job is to deliver services, particularly of the sort that cannot be delivered profitably, and therefore are not likely to be provided by the private sector.  Indeed, if one looks back to the early years of the odious GW Bush administration, the government found itself with an operating surplus - one can easily think of that as a profit, as more revenue had been collected than had been appropriated by Congress - and the key characteristic of the debate over what to do with those funds was its intensity.  But in spite of strongly held opinions, no one ever seriously suggested that the government should just keep it.

The key distinction, when it comes to jobs, is that for a government jobs are an end in themselves.  Increasing economic activity and decreasing unemployment lead to nothing but good things, not only for government but for the party in power.  Tax revenues skyrocket, people are happy and content, corporate profits are up, and a government has a chance to address the more ideological aspects of its agenda rather than battling a struggling economy.  The private sector, on the other hand, is resistant to creating jobs.  Because their overriding concern is profits, it is always preferable to find ways to increase productivity and decrease labor costs.  It is only when demand significantly exceeds production capacity that a company will (reluctantly) add jobs to meet that demand.  So the paradox is, when economic growth is weak, the private sector "Job Creators" will actually actively resist any requests that they increase employment.

The other key factor to consider when you hear people speaking blithely about "Job Creators" is to ask yourself 'what is required to create jobs?'.  The answer, of course, is money.  Jobs are expensive - not just the payroll but the infrastructure and benefits typically required for every one.  This is precisely why the private sector prefers not to add to their headcount - every dollar spent on employees is a dollar that does not return to the shareholders as profits.  This is also the ONLY way anyone can create jobs - by providing the funding to hire the new employees.  Whether directly hiring people at the local, state and national levels, building the large infrastructure projects like airports, schools and railroads that only governments can undertake, or purchasing the vast array of goods and services the thousands of government agencies require to accomplish their mission, in a time of weak demand the government is the 'spender of last resort', putting up the funds that can be used to hire otherwise hopelessly unemployed people.

So the next time you hear Mitt Romney explain that stimulus 'doesn't work', but as the President he'll create jobs, note that he refuses to provide any detail as to how he might do that, and ask yourself what methods will be available to him that are not available to Barack Obama.
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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Not With A Bang...



SCAF - Assisting the Transition to Democracy
Dictators need the military to stay in power.  This has always been the case.  Whether the dictator takes power in a coup or is elected once and simply decides to become "President for Life", the military provides the coercive force needed to keep enemies, both opposing would-be despots and democratic movements, at bay.  In return, the dictator lavishes on the military great wealth, power and prestige, both on an individual and organizational level.  This is the formula, from Argentina to Libya to Korea, and it has always been thus.

There is another, less obvious corollary to this eternal truth, but one that, in the wake of events in Egypt, very likely has single party rulers and Presidents for Life frantically examining their strategies for remaining in power.  That is, very simply, that while dictators depend upon the military for their power and office, the military does not have an equivalent requirement for the dictator.  Oh, sure, to maintain their unlimited wealth and power they need A dictator, but it really doesn't matter who the despot in power happens to be.  It's helpful if he or she is a compelling, charismatic leader, but often not necessary.

It is this lesson that serves as the end-game for the Egyptian revolution.  The military always was the power, and the Mubarak clan was nothing but the (fully interchangeable) figurehead.  He took power with an air of credibility after the assassination of Anwar al Sadat, but as the years went by it became obvious that he had no intention of relinquishing the Presidency under any circumstances other than death.  And there was never any doubt that the real power in Egypt was the military, and Mubarak would stay in power exactly as long as his role in that position served the requirements and expectations of the Air Force in particular, and the military leadership in general.

And when it appeared that the 'Arab Spring' had come to Cairo, and the people would achieve freedom and self-determination, the military  recognized that Mubarak could not survive in office, so they never hesitated to throw him under the bus - er, the tank.  And in a move of large-scale political jiu-jitsu, a move not without a certain elegance, the generals formed the Supreme Counsel of the Armed Forces to assist the transition to a new, democratic government, providing governance and security in the period of elections and writing a new constitution.

But, of course, the generals never had any intention of allowing their hated enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, achieve any kind of real authority, but in a larger sense, they never considered giving up even a shred of their own power.  A democracy would serve as well as a despot - as long as it was ultimately subservient to military authority.  So under the authority of the "benign" SCAF, the generals undertook a series of carefully managed strategic acts to cement their power regardless of how the democratic process developed.  First they restricted the candidates who could stand for election, making sure the new political parties were weakly represented.  Next they dissolved the Committee assembled by the newly elected Parliament that was to write the new constitution - on the premise that it was stacked with Islamists.  The fact that the Brotherhood and their Salafi allies HAD overstepped on the Constitutional Committee allowed a certain cover of credibility to this action.  But then, mere days before the election, the SCAF used its influence over the Judiciary to dissolve the new Parliament completely.  And with that, the soft coup was complete and the revolution utterly co-opted.

Now there will be a President - either the Brotherhood candidate Mursi or the former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik - but he will be without a legislative body, ruling under the old Egyptian Constitution, and utterly dependent upon the military, just as was Hosni Mubarak before him.  Now the military will have control over the new Constitutional process, and will have another chance at getting the Parliament they want.  There will be no civilian control over the military, and there will be no changes to foreign policy positions without the general's approval.  This includes, of course, the most contraversial foreign policy of all, the peace treaty with Israel.  The generals want to continue to receive American aid and weapons - the treaty will remain in place.

All around the world, dictators are looking at this outcome and swallowing hard.  Egypt figured out how to allow the Arab Spring revolution to succeed without any significant change to governance and business as usual.  The formula is in place now - the despot is disposable, and the revolution can be managed.  al-Assad's slaughter represents the last gasp of of the old ways, an unsophisticated iron fist that costs the country wealth and prestige and is, ultimately, counterproductive even to the goals of the dictator's government.  Peaceful revolutions can be allowed to succeed, and by doing so, they will ultimately fail.

Update 6/18/12:
In the midst of utter chaos in Cairo, while the lesser of us try to make some sense out of the latest claims and decrees, Marc Lynch finds the perfect explanatory analogy:  Calvinball...
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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Conversations and Arguments

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Can't we all just get along?
At this point, many, if not most of us, use the Internet as a primary venue to talk to people.  Humans, it has been repeated forever, are inherently social creatures.  What the hell does that mean?  As near as I can tell, it means we place a significant value upon conversation.  Not necessarily to accomplish any specific agenda, but rather we value the conversation itself.  In a sense, with human interaction, getting there isn’t HALF the fun, it is the entire point of the exercise.

So great.  But what IS conversation?  If you set aside commercial transactions and the day-to-day tasks that require some sort of verbal communication, leaving those conversations we choose to have because we WANT to, what you get is primarily argument.  When we argue about politics and religion, it can be heated, uncomfortable, overall an unpleasant personal experience.  But everything else...

We are interested in the things we are interested in.  Obviously, I have a strong interest in tautologies.  As a result, many of the conversations we choose to have are related to these topics of mutual interest.  Alongside that, we humans are a competitive lot.  We’ve never found an activity we couldn’t turn into a contest.  From “race ya to the red car” to “Iron Chef”, we want to compete on every level, which seems to be related on one level or another to our universal belief that we are the best, the number one expert, the top performer, the unquestioned font of wisdom and the final arbiter of the answers to the Big Questions™.

Over the millennia, this has lead to a favored kind of conversational argument, a sort of friendly banter characterized by a mocking tone and a string of insults.  You might tell me you think Lincecum’s problems are physical, that 5.56mm is the best Intermediate Cartridge in the world, that a 280Z can outperform an RX-7 or there’s something valuable in String Theory research, and I will tell you you’re a fuckin’ idiot.  Now, when we’re sitting in brewpub having this conversation, this otherwise incredibly rude response will go virtually unnoticed, if not unchallenged.  But the tone will be recognized for its intention, and other participants in the conversation will often chuckle, awaiting the inevitable crude response.  No one gets angry or hurt feelings, both because this is a longstanding form of conversation, and because of the other cues available to evaluate the intentions of the speaker.

Which brings us to the Internet.  Many of us today have more conversations on the series of tubes than we have in the real world, and whether we are denizens of Facebook, the blogosphere, aggregation sites or the thousands of comment threads on everything from CNN to Mother Jones to YouTube to IMFDB, we are satisfying our social need for conversation, for friendly, competitive argument with plain text, a few HTML tags and those ubiquitous emoticons.

It is oddly counterintuitive, but seemingly broadly true, that feelings are much more sensitive, and outrage and anger much closer to the surface on the Internet than face to face.  Perhaps it has to do with those other visual and auditory clues to motive and intent, but I don’t think that’s it.  Because this limitation to the medium of purely written communication has been recognized forever, and even going back to Usenet and IRC there have been attempts to mitigate its problematic nature.  But really, if you tell me that Belinda Carlisle was hotter than Joan Jett or that Angelina Jolie was a better gun handler than Milla Jovovich in a face-to-face conversation and I tell you you’re a fuckin’ idiot, we’ll laugh and move on.  But if we’re having that conversation on the Internet, and I tell you you’re a fuckin’ idiot LOL half the time you’re STILL going to get angry, and instead of our enjoyable argument continuing, the whole thing goes off the rails.

Sadly, I don’t have a real solution to propose at this point.  People should have normalized their Internet based interactions at this point, understanding when they’re talking to friends or trolls, and adjusting their expectations accordingly.  But the fact that they haven’t done so indicates to me that there is, at some fundamental level, a difference in how we perceive our conversations.  So Internet threads that started as these kinds of enjoyable conversations often break down into acrimony and anger, with the participants ultimately finding the whole process unsatisfactory, and yet after insincere apologies are demanded and accepted, the whole process starts again.  It seems obvious we are striving for something comfortably parallel to that experience in the brewpub, but don’t know how to get there.
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Friday, June 15, 2012

Who's In Charge Here?

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Today, a lot more Checks than Balances
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the debates surrounding the Presidential campaigns is how insanely unrealistic they are about the power of the President to actually implement any of his stated agenda.  The American system of governance is a weird, mutated hybrid.  It's true we have a system that grants more power to the Executive than any other democratic system, but by preventing the President from making law and appropriating funds we cripple him in the very areas he's likely to make the most sweeping promises.

Think about a Parliamentary system of governance.  The Head of State is usually a mostly ceremonial position, without any real power.  The Head of Government, on the other hand, is by definition part of the Legislature AND the head of the most powerful party or coalition in that body.  So the Prime Minister can enact his party's political and ideological agenda in a virtually unfettered fashion.

The American system started out with a very large number of veto points, with THREE branches of government, TWO Houses of Congress, Checks, Balances and a fully empowered independent judiciary with the final say over what became the law of the land.  But tellingly for a new nation throwing off the shackles of Monarchy, there was a quite reasonable concern about vesting too much power in the hands of a single individual.  So the founders placed what they believed to be the three most important functions - making laws, spending money and declaring war - in the hands of Congress.  Over time, Congress has found some of the powers granted to them by the Constitution to be daunting and fraught with fearsome consequences and have voluntarily surrendered many of those powers to the White House.

Thus, we find ourselves with an oddly limited yet frighteningly empowered Presidency.  He can, for example, take the nation to war on his word alone, but he does not have the power to agree to a treaty that might avoid war.  He commands the Treasury, but has no real influence over the Central Bank.  He has authority over a vast amalgamation of agencies and departments, but can neither independently appoint their leadership nor determine their funding levels.  He can destroy a bridge in another nation without even telling his constituency, but he has no power whatsoever to build one here in America.

So now we find ourselves embroiled in a raging argument about which party's leader would make the best steward of the American economy.  Who can create more jobs, increase GDP, provide the necessary conditions for private sector businesses to grow all while balancing the burdens of taxation on the American people against the need to provide the necessary government services the people demand.  This is delusional in the extreme.

We would be very well served to understand, and accept, the limitations of the Executive branch when it comes to impacting these critical areas.  They all require not just Congressional acquiescence, but active support in both houses, and some ability to create a single, uniform document that can be signed into law.  How might the President create jobs?  Well, he could build schools and bridges and airports and railroads.  Our infrastructure is old and failing, and it's well known that infrastructure projects do more to empower private sector growth than anything else, and these projects would require workers, thus producing real jobs.  But the President can't build so much as a gas station.  Only Congress can release the funds, and we have reached the point of political dysfunction where the opposition party in Congress won't approve funding for any project that might allow the President to be seen in a favorable light.

So please.  When you take part in these debates over the effectiveness of the Obama administration and the potential policies that might be implemented under a Romney Presidency, keep in mind that in order to make the slightest affirmative change they need to navigate a broken, obsolete and dysfunctional system of governance.  For all the power the President wields in matters of state, he simply does not have the power to drive real economic change.  When you hear their arguments, just think about this - the most profound change in American society to come out of the Obama White House wasn't a law or a policy or an Executive Order.  It was merely that clear, unambiguous statement that two people who love each other and want to make a lifelong legal commitment to each other should not be prevented from doing so.  For better or for worse, THAT'S the power of the Presidency.
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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Droning On...

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Coming soon to a neighborhood near you
I know.  But just think about it.  In a few years, unmanned aircraft are going to have the capability to fly autonomously and independently to any point, navigate by GPS or Terrain Following, and will have effective ranges of hundreds of miles.

So what?  Think about that capability in the hands of State intelligence services and well-funded non-state organizations alike.  How that might change the world.  Opportunities for Blackmail and Protection rackets.  Large scale acts of terrorism that do not require the death of the operators.  Targeted killing - no head of state will ever again be able to make a scheduled public appearance.  His or her location will have to be kept a secret.  Political campaigns will become entirely virtual events.  Nickleback and Creed would never be able to perform another concert.

These things will very soon be cheap, effective, almost impossible to defend against - ubiquitous weapons used almost daily by competing factions, aimed at almost any kind of target.  Why are they hard to defend against?  They fly low and slow - air to air missiles fly at Mach 2 to Mach 4.  Surface to air missiles, along with Anti-Aircraft guns, might be able to get some percentage of them - provided they were EVERYWHERE and there weren't too many attackers - but then you have all that hot metal and explosives falling out of the sky onto - well, anywhere.  Shooting down a couple drones in a populated area might end up costing more lives that failing to shoot them down.

And while the high end is scary enough, think about the low end.  A limited capability drone with a ten kilo warhead and an autonomous GPS navigation system might cost $25,000 or less.  Ex wives, business partners, large creditors - it will certainly become a cost effective solution to a number of pesky problems. And if I launch a drone from somewhere in rural Sonoma or West Marin that kills somebody in San Francisco, I'm going to be able to set up a pretty damn airtight alibi and it's going to be difficult to convict me of the murder.

Sometimes, when the world changes, it's initially very hard to notice.  The first PCs didn't obviously presage the Internet, any more than that windy afternoon at Kittyhawk made today's air travel an obvious outcome.  But make no mistake, the world is changing in a particularly dark and frightening fashion.  Maybe it was inevitable, like nuclear weapons, but if it was always bound to be born, just as with nuclear weapons, the US is the mid-wife, and will bear much of the consequences.
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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sure...But What's It DO??

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From Financial Times Front Page
So anywhere you go on the web this morning, you see this somewhat surprisingly breathless report of (yet) another video chat application for the Facebook platform.  I guess it may be news because it's the brainchild of Napster wunderkind Seans Parker and Fanning.

My first thought is the fairly obvious "how many free video chat platforms do we need, and what can one do to differentiate itself from the others"?  I mean, you talk to someone while looking at their face (or whatever they happen to have their webcam pointed at - my impression has been that faces were not commonplace on ChatRoulette).  We've had Skype and GChat for years.  Why bother?

But that leads to the larger question: Is this something people generally want to do?  I've been hearing about videophone services since the 1960s.  It's been possible for a long time, and yet it has never become commonplace, let alone a default mode of communication.  Videoconferencing is certainly valuable for businesses and widely distributed organizations - allowing people to work together on projects, sharing computer screens, presentations and even white boards, all while getting to know their colleagues a little better.

But video chat?  You have to stay in front of the webcam, which is not typically how people tend to behave on a telephone call.  I, like many of you, am a 'pacer'.  For the same reason I love Bluetooth - the freedom to wander around the room - I would not be an ideal candidate for a video chat session.  But even beyond that, is this something we'd like to do?  Our sense of what a telephone call is, that voice-only conversation where we've learned to replace the visual cues with more exaggerated verbal ones, is highly developed at this point and I'm not sure the distraction of looking at someone contributes to communication.  Beyond that, it's just our face (or, for some, our junk).  I suppose it's interesting to see what people look like, but after you've seen them, the ongoing image of that moon-like face just loses any value.  I did, however, read about an outfit that's building a video chat app for smart phones that uses the front facing camera.  That might be much more interesting - the ability to show people what you are talking about, or just have a view from out the window while you talk would at least be more interesting than the endless staring at your poorly-lit face.

I don't know.  The lesson here is even in a gold rush, where the first cool new app in a given category tends to make money, is that just doing the same things, doing things that have been done, or even doing things that have been done and don't seem to be important or exciting just isn't likely to get you anywhere.



Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Great Overreach - How the US changed the way the world wages war, and destroyed itself in the process


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"That's an odd reading..."
There is a reason the United States military is unmatched globally, and can win any fight with any force, even those that are much larger.  The reason is technology.  Materials science.  Advanced electronics.  Spaceflight.  As hard as it is to build an aircraft carrier or a nuclear submarine or an ICBM or a spy satellite, it is many times harder to operate them, to learn to use them, and for that knowledge to become institutionalized and so made a part of the force itself.  And those capabilities are out of reach of any, or really all, of America's potential adversaries.

The science, the engineering, the management capabilities necessary to design, build and deploy these sorts of systems is far beyond any other nation or organization, and would take years, perhaps decades to develop.  And even after that, the creation of an officer corps, a leadership and training structure and an operational infrastructure comprising the huge variety of expertise and experience necessary to make it all work is a generational process.  In a world where the US dominates this kind of conventional warfighting, you would think that the maintenance of that dominance would be a central organizing principle of the US strategic agenda.

But apparently you would be wrong.  Recently the US has made a decision to focus its combat operations in two particular areas - drones and offensive cyberwar.  In addition to being inexpensive and quickly and easily deployed, these technologies have the additional advantage of allowing the US to strike within the borders of any nation, at any time - even nations with whom we are at peace, even nations who are ostensibly our allies.

But in addition to their low cost and short development cycles, Unmanned Combat Aircraft and Offensive Weaponized Software have another, much more critical similarity:  At their root, the expertise required, the innovation available, the key component in both drones and malware is software.  Not stealth.  Not sensors.  Not satellites.  Not silicon.  Just software. If there is one engineering discipline where America does not hold a crucial advantage, software would be that discipline.

A small group, ten or twenty smart young people, can develop brilliant software at virtually no cost.  No materials to purchase, no big research labs, they don't even have to know each other.  And yet this is the direction America has chosen to take the world's bloodlust.  Into the realm of small, cheap aircraft piloted by software, and into the realm of malicious software, a specific area of technology, it should be noted, that America does not lead in even today.

In 2003, Iraq had a million men under arms.  The US invaded that country, defeated its army and occupied its capitol in a matter of weeks, with minimal losses.  There was simply no military force in the world that could stand against the offensive onslaught the US combined arms capability provided.  A world with no real competitors.  So it is beyond baffling to see the American braintrust quickly migrating their endless, global warfighting to two platforms where they hold no significant advantage, and, in the case of Weaponized Software, it can even be argued that they have the greatest vulnerability.

Iran has been under explicit threat of American attack for years.  In Pakistan and Yemen, American drone aircraft routinely slaughter families and decimate neighborhoods.  In Palestine and Gaza, America is regularly seen as enabling the day-to-day immiseration and collective punishment of an entire people.  There was quite literally nothing they could do about it - no way, no matter their anger or their radicalization, for them to attack such a powerful enemy so far away.  And now, in one of those slow evolutions that is hardly noticed at the time, it was the US itself that changed the rules, and allowed small, poorly funded groups to fight the mighty American military on a level playing field.  This is a process we will very likely look back on in ten years with deep regrets.

Unmanned aircraft launched from ships, from Mexico, from a Walmart parking lot in St. Louis can kill Americans just as they kill Pakistanis.  They can be launched from the Sinai, from Lebanon, from Serbia - with GPS, real-time video and increasingly autonomous software piloting the craft, limitations in range and payload can be offset by numbers and accuracy.  It is the US Government that has established that sovereign borders are no defense against unmanned aircraft and malicious software.  When these attacks start to fall on the US, and make no mistake, they WILL, our government will cry out in aggrieved hypocrisy, but the world will look on sadly, knowing that it was the US that established these new norms.

But as awful as the daily threat of death by airborne robot will be for Americans - a threat, it should be said, that communities in various corners of the world lives with even today - it is the dangers associated with cyber attacks that should frighten us the most.  Software is a marvelous concept - it is not any one thing - like music, or the written word, it is endlessly malleable, enabling invention after invention, whole new uses appear to one visionary after another.  The ways that America can be hurt with a carefully crafted digital payload cannot be enumerated, because there will always be another innovation, another flash of deadly insight.  Remember that STUXNET, the original offensive software weapon, did not just corrupt files and steal data - it was designed to utilize the SCADA systems to actually destroy physical systems.  When word of the STUXNET worm reached the public, Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, was quoted as saying "...somebody crossed the Rubicon".

Again, if the US believes that it can launch a targeted, destructive digital attack on any nation it pleases, it will be very difficult for the US to claim that a similar attack directed against it is out of bounds, an act of terrorism or a crime.  And what is the barrier to another nation getting in the offensive software business?  You need a group of smart, angry, motivated young people and some computers.  That's not building a jet fighter or an ICBM.  People are building powerful, innovative software all over the world every day.

The world is changing at an incredible pace - and much of the changes are not for the better.  But in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, the shift to a world endlessly at war, not just Axis vs. Allies, but many sides, many factions, states fighting with and against non-state players, attacks coming daily, with no neutrality and no way for it to end will have a profound effect on the way we, and even more our children, live...
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