Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Stopped Clock, Or Something A Little More Important?

Yeah.  ALL the amendments are important.
One of the great frustrations with the Tea Party is that they often have a chance to demand important constitutional protections in a manner that would provide wide bi-partisan support, and yet every time they seem to choose hypocrisy over consistency. They love an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, but somehow their demands for an unequivocal defense of the second amendment is often not mirrored by an equivalent defense of the first, fourth or fifth.  And their full-throated defense of individual rights in the face of government intrusion never seems to extend to reproductive rights, religious freedom or sexual and gender equality.

And yet their stated ideological positions, writ large, offer a great opportunity for a liberal/conservative coalition on issues of personal freedom, individual liberty and constitutional protections.  If they would only hold true to their stated beliefs, even when to do so put them in agreement with a liberal agenda, we would have a chance to hold back the ongoing selective limitations on rights guaranteed by the constitution.  And guess what?  Finally, as the issues of freedom and community come into stark relief, it's tremendously reassuring to see the the wingnuts demand that the government live by the laws of the land.  And even more importantly, we see a far-right political leader putting her citizens first, not just accepting but fighting for federal health care resources in the face of ideological intransigence.

So what are we to make of this?  The Texas state legislature, perhaps the most reactionary right wing body in the US, passed HB2268, without doubt the strongest email privacy legislation in the nation.  The bill would provide Texans with a powerful set of privacy rights at the state level, although, of course, federal law enforcement in this area is still governed by the tremendously flawed 1986 ECPA.  Of course, Texas governor Perry is loathe to support anything that liberals approve of, but given that the bill passed both Houses without a single "nay" vote, he might feel somewhat constrained to simply veto it.  His alternative is to do nothing, in which case the Bill would become law in mid-June and take effect in September.

However, that development pales in the face of the battle of Arizona.  It turns out you can say just about anything you like about Arizona Governor Jan Brewer - right wing, inflexible, reactionary, politically inept, racist - and you might be right in every case.  But who knew she also took her role as Governor seriously, placing the well being of constituents above her political ideology?  That's the kind of thing politicians claim, but you just never see them stand firmly behind it regardless of cost.

In January Gov. Brewer announced she would be supporting the Medicaid expansion in the ACA, often referred to as "Obamacare".  This is a no-brainer for any rational Governor, because it uses federal funds almost exclusively to expand the ranks of people covered by Medicaid. It allows many otherwise uninsured citizens to receive subsidized health care at minimal cost to the state coffers.  Republicans hate it, and have taken a stand that they will allow their poor citizens to suffer and die in significant numbers rather than take the federal funds.  But not Governor Brewer. In a surprise announcement, she said her administration would participate in the Medicaid expansion.  Her legislature was less than sanguine, and have done nothing to implement that goal.  That left the Governor with two choices - back down and let ideology take its course, or go to war with her ideologically simpatico legislature.  Bet you didn't see this coming.

She told the Legislature they were out of the lawmaking business until they implemented the Medicaid expansion.  She announced her intention to veto EVERY bill passed until then.  The congress was unconvinced and sent five bills to her desk this week.  She vetoed every one.

It. Is. On.

The Arizona Senate has agreed to the Medicaid expansion, and the battle between the Statehouse and the House of Representatives grows increasingly tense.  Nobody wants to back down, and it's hard to know who holds the strongest hand.  But the interesting thing here is that common sense and statesmanship is being placed above ideology.  By Jan Brewer.  To the point where she's willing to buck her own allies.

I don't think this is some kind of a trend, necessarily, but it could very well be the beginning of some kind of minimal self-awareness from some members of the political right.  There should be some recognition that your first job is to govern effectively, and it's only secondarily that you can use your position to promote an ideological agenda.  And maybe we're seeing some of that...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

It Works!! Now What?

Cody Wilson risks life and limb to
prove a concept
On May 2nd, Forbes staff writer Andy Greenburg and a photographer accompanied Cody Wilson to a remote Texas firing range with a breakthrough in firearms technology.  Well, the technology is evolutionary, the breakthrough is more conceptual.

The gun in question is called "The Liberator", after the disposable single shot .45s dropped across occupied Europe in the second world war.  The idea was you used this simple, cheap gun to kill a soldier and acquire his more effective weapons.  Except that while the modern version is a single shot .380 of vaguely similar design, it has the distinction of being downloadable.  That's right - the entire gun (except for the use of a common nail for a firing pin) is ABS plastic, built over a period of hours on an increasingly commonplace 3D printer.

Now you might question Wilson's ideology, or even his sanity, but you may rest assured he is not stupid.  The first tests of the new all-3D printed handgun were conducted at the end of a 20 foot string tied to the trigger.  With the exception of a mis-fire due to a mis-aligned firing pin, the tests went well.  The next day, accompanied by his father and Greenburg, amid nervous discussion of the location of the nearest hospital and the availability of materials for a field-expedient tourniquet, Cody Wilson loaded and fired the gun himself.  Again, it worked flawlessly.

As alluded to above, this is not really a conversation about technology.  This technology was inevitable, and is still in its infancy.  Designs will improve, the 3D printers will become more broadly available, and most importantly, the materials will become more robust.  Much more importantly is what it means about freedom, democracy, speech, and their limits in a technologically advanced society.  The key problem is the gun's existence in the actual physical realm is fleeting, measured in hours or days.  Before that it is merely information, a collection of bits on a server somewhere in the world.  In very real terms, it is a lethal weapon that can be 'conjured' when needed, and then eliminated immediately after use.

The first shrieks of panicked outrage you'll hear are that it finally fulfills the original myth of the Glock - a plastic gun that can be carried through metal detectors without risk.  Because Wilson's company, Defense Distributed, is a licensed Firearms manufacturer, in order to comply with existing laws about the detectability of handguns, there is a slot inside the frame that holds a six-ounce steel plate.  But there would, of course, be no way to require or enforce the requirement that downloaders actually include the steel plate in the assembled piece.  In fact, however, this is a red herring.  Setting aside the fact that the ammunition will be detectable, the very idea of hijacking an airliner has become something of a non-issue after 9/11.  Nobody will sit by and allow a hijacker to take control of an aircraft - the calculation is not that some might die, but a generalized refusal to allow all to die.  Along with air marshals and hardened cockpits, airlines are protecting against destructive devices, not plastic guns.

No, the real issues are bigger, and harder than metal detectors.  The issue is the ability to acquire a gun on demand, without a transaction - indeed, without any intermediary whatsoever.  There is no point in that process where the history, stability and intentions of the individual can be considered or investigated.  The interesting challenge is that the gun becomes an abstraction, existing only in the cloud until, with a few clicks, it can be made real and functional by anyone with an Internet connection.  What that means, and how it will affect our society is entirely unknown.  But along with drones, ubiquitous surveillance and the end of privacy, it signals a post technological society far different from the one we hoped for...

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Classical Gas - Hot Air or a Lot of Nerve?

Oh Look!  Here's some now...
It is a given that that the Syrian military under the command of Bashar al-Assad's Baath party has substantial stockpiles of chemical weapons.  It is widely believed that they have the ability to deploy both blister agents such as Mustard Gas as well as nerve agents like Sarin.  Now, regardless of how many times they say it on TV, these are not the dreaded "WMDs".

It has become a common, if unfortunate convention to identify chemical weapons as Weapons of Mass Destruction, alongside nuclear and biological weapons, but this is clearly wrong.  It is part of an overall modern tendency of "threat inflation" that governments use to elevate any situation they choose to a state of existential conflict, a condition under which they can take actions that otherwise their populations would find unacceptable.  But chemical weapons are battlefield weapons, not capable of the destruction of a large modern city or an entire population.

Which isn't to say that chemical weapons aren't horrible in their own way.  They kill in truly awful ways, if there is some kind of scale where being blown into pieces by an airstrike or left to bleed out with large caliber bullet wounds occupy one level and suffocating under the effects of toxic gasses that operate much like pesticides on a human scale might somehow be judged more awful.  But even more to the point, they kill indiscriminately without control or guidance outside of the prevailing winds. This makes them a nearly ideal weapon of terror, if not actually of mass destruction.

The existence of these chemical stockpiles in Syria creates a number of genuine concerns.  The first is that al-Assad might order their use against the rebels - even though they are operating in dense urban environments with large civilian populations.  Then there is the equal and opposite concern that the rebels will overrun a military base with a chemical weapons inventory and use them against regime forces, which are also in that same kind of densely populated environment.  But a much greater concern - at least to people outside of Syria itself - is that any number of players, from the Syrian army to the rebel forces to organized criminal factions might gain possession of these weapons and transfer them to other groups or organizations.  Some of the Syrian rebels are jihadis, with ties to the original al-Quaeda, and the Ba'ath government is supported outright by Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Other non-governmental groups throughout the region would happily buy a few containers of Sarin gas for their own purposes.  And famously, the Obama administration has declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" that would necessitate an American military response.

The frightening part of all this discussion around Syrian chemical weapons is summed up neatly in the principle of Chekhov's Gun.  As Anton Chekhov famously wrote in 1889, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."  With all this rhetoric around these weapons, the almost magical qualities attributed to them and the power they have been granted to change the very terms of the civil war, it seems unlikely that they won't ultimately become a key part of the conflict.  al-Assad has nothing to lose - he'll never leave Syria alive at this point, and even if he does, they can only hang him for war crimes once.  The rebels are virtually praying for a large scale unambiguous deployment of chemical weapons, an act that might bring real external military power to bear on the remains of the Ba'ath - Alawite regime and quickly bring an end to their power.  Palestinian groups, long killed and imprisoned by Israel with impunity see the possession of sufficiently terrible weapons as a way to level the playing field and give them some leverage in negotiations.  With all of these pressures from so many different directions compelling their use, it seems inevitable at this point that they will become the focal point, and perhaps the end-game, of the Syrian civil war.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

Hey! How'd he get such a hot babe?
What to do about North Korea?  Everybody agrees that the best solution is diplomacy, negotiations to resolve the conflicts that are creating tensions on the Korean peninsula   But if you think about it, is there really anything to negotiate?  Put another way, what would a "deal" with Kim Jong-Un look like?

Unlike most other nations, North Korea has nothing of value to offer the world.  They are an impoverished, backward nation without enough agricultural, manufacturing or hard currency output to meet even their own most basic needs.  Really, the only demand the West can make on them is to stop being such a dick.  But being a major dick is their only export product, and the only quid pro quo they would see as being worth accepting would have to be nearly both infinite and eternal.

Like a spoiled child seeking attention by demanding concessions in exchange for (temporary) good behavior, the best approach would seem to be to simply ignore the tantrums.  The assumption would be that Kim doesn't really want war, and China most certainly doesn't want to see his government collapse and the Peninsula re-unified under the auspices of Seoul and the US.  The risk would be that the Generals would continue to escalate to try to regain the initiative in "negotiations" to the point where something very bad happened almost of its own accord.

But if we are to be honest, we have to recognize that this strategy isn't simply being driven by the North Koreans.  Western governments, particularly the US military and political leadership, long ago fell into the habit of threat inflation.  They discovered that they could get everything from budget increases to anti-democratic legislation to outright aggressive war by creating the image of catastrophic or existential threat.  This culminated, of course, with the ridiculous vague conflation of various weapons programs as "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq, creating the utterly artificial construct that the Iraqis, economically and militarily crippled though they were, represented an actual threat to the United States of America.  It is impossible to effectively describe the magnitude of this delusion, but there can be no doubt that it was created for political purposes and it proved politically effective.

So now we have another impoverished third world nation making outrageous claims as to their military capacity, and once again our Generals and Legislators and Pundits respond predictably, accepting the claims at face value or even giving them additional gravitas all on their own.  While it seems obvious that the best diplomatic and military approach to North Korea would be to ignore their irrational ranting - they don't want war, and won't start one on their own - our very own government and media leaders grab onto Kim's threats because they see them as an opportunity to increase their own funding, prestige or leverage.