Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mick Was Wrong

You can't always get what you want  -- Mick Jagger

First, let's recognize that the arc of history has not been particularly tolerant of those who would demand the state limit the rights of certain groups out of tribal fear and hatred.  In any society where the people have a voice, it just becomes increasingly difficult to defend institutionalized bigotry.  Over and over again, we get to know individuals and discover, yet again, that those we have been told are 'the others' are really no different than we are, and find that, once fear and hatred are no longer operative justifications for systematic discrimination, the remaining arguments become impossible to take seriously, for once they no longer have the twin pillars of tribal fear and hatred to prop them up, they are revealed for what they are - nothing more than transparent lies and playground taunts.

So congratulations to New York.  I will drink to your courage, and your people, now just a little bit freer than they were yesterday.  But it's worthwhile to think about this struggle in context.  Why has it taken so long?  What keeps this kind of statutory inequality from collapsing in a smoldering heap under the weight of it's own contradictions and transparently pointless hatred?  And the answer is there to be seen by all - the toxic, primitive mythologies of organized religion in our culture.  The grossly undemocratic, one would have to say un-American contributors of sectarian fear and divisiveness that indoctrinate children with patently false tales of mass murder and ancient blood feuds, imaginary creatures preaching a deadly kind of hypocrisy and unbelievable tales of ridiculous heroes, cartoonish villains and impossible events.

When you think about it, it is religion that unabashedly supports every discriminatory instinct, every tribal taboo and every base motivation a society can use to dominate, segregate and discriminate against any kind of measurable difference.  Women are always targeted by religion - indeed, it is every bit as accurate to say that men universally use mythology to exercise unjust power over women, even down to their most personal and intimate decisions.  Non-believers are a threat.  They are always to be victimized.  But beyond all that, religions rigidly enforce a kind of broad conformity among their followers, allowing them to categorize 'others' by appearance, styles of dress, behavior, relationships or any otherwise inconsequential pattern of diversity.  A clear mark of any organized religion is that no matter how large it grows, there are always more people it hates than there are those it accepts.

And this is where we find ourselves today.  An enlightened population, at least by historical standards, being forced to fight for basic human rights against nothing other than the forces of superstition and mythology.  The kind of shamans and witches we should have left behind at least a hundred years ago.  It is only churches that have the mindbending audacity to stand up in AMERICA and demand they be given special dispensation to discriminate.  The presumption that they should be allowed to single out certain groups for unequal treatment and still insist they be taken seriously as Americans is beyond incoherence - it flies in the face of basic American values and needs to be called out for precisely what it is.

It is unclear to me why, at this point in history, when science has come so far in explaining everything from disease and genetics to the weather and the universe, we still allow these bastions of superstition and the supernatural to invoke the same old fears we overcame centuries ago to dominate the political conversation.  If it is true that my right to throw a punch ends where your nose begins, then their right to worship supernatural deities and mythological just-so stories should just as well end where it begins to impact my ability to live my life in freedom.  And along with the decision to raise a child, I can think of no more intrusive an act of discrimination than to determine I may not marry the person I love.

Because, while it is true that religion has long played a role in marriage, in that churches, within certain carefully proscribed legal parameters could perform marriages that were recognized as legal civil marriages, that's not the argument we're having here.  We're talking strictly about the legal part of marriage, the rights, privileges and obligations, the legal and economic impact of marriage, and the application of laws to married couples.  And while you certainly COULD choose to get married in a church, you have always had the option of a strictly secular marriage that carried with it exactly the same weight as a church wedding in the eyes of the state.  To put it simply, while religion may care about marriage, marriage does not care about religion.

So it is unclear to me why we even offer religion a seat at the table in this discussion.  We certainly don't when discussing other strictly legal matters.  And churches are fantasy houses built on mythology - they can include whatever odd and undemocratic strictures in their dogma they wish, but there is NO reason why those should ever apply to people who choose not to follow that dogma.

Now, of course, the other challenge to marriage equality is political, and that represents a two-pronged problem of its own.  First, politicians are imbued with the same bigotry, fear, misogyny as those they represent, so a primitive, superstitious, tribal electorate will most often choose a primitive, superstitious and tribal congressional representative.  And certainly politicians are just as subject to the corrosive influence of religious indoctrination as anyone else.  But it is also true that successful politicians must have a gift for holding up a finger and detecting shifts in the political winds, which is an important part of what we saw in New York.

So, the barriers are falling - the writing is well and truly on the wall now.  As we watch the end of another generational fight to become the society we have claimed to be for centuries play out, it only makes it clearer how far we still have to go, and how much we have lost in the process.  But with every passing day it becomes clearer - we have reached a point where we have to let go of superstition and myth.  We have come to a place where these things serve no valuable purpose, but are holding us back.  We do not need religion to understand philosophy, ethics or morality.  But when religion and science collide, it is the stories without basis in fact that must give way.  And even more importantly, when it is those very religions that serve as the engines of hatred and discrimination, when they fuel anger and violence rather than offer succor and peace, then they must be discarded, having served their purpose, they are now a toxic parasite on the body politic...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Primitive Radio Gods, Duke Nukem and a Moment in Time

I was just sitting down by the pool.  Had the square iPod on shuffle.  The rectangular iPod was charging.  So pretty soon it decides to play Primitive Radio Gods primitive radio hit "Standing outside Mother Teresa while the mob tries to jack Mt. St. Helens" or whatever it was called. I actually like that song.  But every time I hear it, it takes me right back to the summer of 1996, my Summer of Duke Nukem.

Duke's been in the news lately, for a new release that's a decade late and still not ready for prime time.  But for me, the muscle bound foul mouthed nutball holds a special place in history.  See, I've never been good at video games.  And since I always lose, quickly and without honor, I've never developed an interest in them.  In my UNIX days I always died in "Hunt the Wumpus" and later, when video games were fixtures in bars, built into tables under a sheet of dark glass, ready to swallow a mint's worth of quarters on top of the bar bill, I was Space Invaders fodder of the worst kind.  I often thought it would be better to just light money on fire - that might at least last a few minutes.

But I was in a very small, niche business - building packages for software distributions.  If you had a piece of software and wanted ten thousand duplicated, labeled, retail boxed packages with manuals and coupons, I was your man.  And there wasn't a lot of us, and we all knew each other.  So one of the side bennies was you didn't pay for software.  Any software - somebody would always pull one off the production line, mark it a 'QA Fail' and fedex it off for your amusement.  And so it came to pass that in the early summer of '96 I found in my hands a copy of 'Duke Nukem 3D'.  I had a homebuilt overclocked 386 machine and full-on VGA graphics, so even against my better judgement I decided "why not?  If not me, who?  If not now..." ahh, fuck it - I never had a prayer.

But here's the thing - this post isn't about Duke Nukem, or video games.  Oh no, we're going much farther down the rabbit hole than that.  Because in those brave, pioneering days, you'll recall, we climbed on the Internet with an analog modem, many if not most of us connecting through AOL, and it would take a minute or more to download a decent hi-res porn jpeg.  We were still two or three years from MP3s and Napster, and video?  Hah, don't be silly - when some visionary talked about watching videos over the Internet, we smiled, nodded, and muttered something skeptical about their intellectual or perhaps psychological development.

So in a way, the incremental improvements in technology were more appreciated then, because we had a sense that doing these things was HARD, and on the rare occasion that they were done WELL, well that was cause for much rejoicing.  I had a thing called DMX.  It was a music service delivered by the cable company, and it had its own set-top box and remote, and cost its own $9.95 a month.  And to this day, I look back on it as the best music service I've ever had, perhaps the best music service imaginable.  Of course, there were reasons for that that did not include the music service itself, although it was reliable, the quality was excellent and there were dozens of different genre-based channels to choose from.  The coolest technological feature was that there was a little two-line LCD screen on the remote, and you could query the box and it would tell you the artist and song playing, and give you a brief synopsis of their history.  Which was important, because incredibly interesting new things were happening in music every week at that time, and if you only had mainstream FM radio, you were going to miss most of them.

And that, at long last, is the point.  Those very few years, post Nirvana and Pre Eminem were something special.  It's as if they put something in the water - not only did the bands drink it and find new things to say and new ways to say them, but the labels drank it too and kept signing new bands with new sounds and there wasn't anything to hold it together as a genre, it was just an explosion of auditory exploration and musical poetry so they called it 'Alternative', although nobody quite knew what it was an alternative TO and nobody quite knew how all these different themes and sounds fit together as a cohesive whole, but it was so magical and so exciting that you literally got out of bed in the morning thinking "I wonder what I'll hear today that I've never heard before in my life"?

There were the big boys - Alice and Soundgarden and Punkins and Bush, Gavin doing something interesting with basic metal for the first time in a long time, there was a whole new look at what punk was supposed to sound like, Offspring and Rancid and even Greenday, when every new track off 'Dookie' was a revelation.  Everclear and No Doubt and even Dave Grohl, proving lightening CAN strike twice.  There was spinoffs like Belly and DHC getting a chance to soar, there were little noticed flashes of brilliance, from Self and Geraldine Fibbers to Heather Nova to Dada (remember 'California Gold'?) to Catherine Wheel, Liz Phair and the Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms to Mazzie Starr, Social Distortion to Imperial Drag, Letters to Cleo to Godsmack.

It was that moment when they played the Primitive Radio Gods on DMX while I struggled and hacked and restarted my way through Duke Nukem 3D.  And yes, I finished it, although I DID have to use some cheats to get through a couple parts, and it took me a ridiculous amount of time, hours piled on hours, but never wasted, for there was always music playing, and, at least for a time, the music was magical.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Adult in the Room

Historically, tipping points aren't really that unusual.  They come with regularity, several times a century, sometimes several times a decade.  Just in the last few decades, we've seen the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the cold war, the rise of the Internet and 9/11 and the resultant violent upheavals that are still playing out in Capitols from Islamabad to Madrid.  

So it's not necessarily overwrought to observe that what we're seeing in the Middle East, Arabia and North Africa this spring and summer, reflected as it is in the global financial crisis and its attendant reshuffling of political power, is a defining moment in international relations.  The long overhang of authoritarian dictatorships, propped up by opposing powers to act as proxies has continued almost as a reflex, without any underlying logic.  And finally, millions of people had the ability to look at the world around them and wonder why they faced such a grim and hopeless future, and they had a method for organizing themselves and presenting a genuine threat to the sclerotic despots that have simply stayed too long at the dance.

The outcome of the various "Arab Spring" national movements is entirely dependent upon how invested those in the second and third levels of power in the survival of the existing power structure.  When the military in Tunisia and Egypt were simply unwilling to slaughter their own people in great enough numbers to quash the rebellion, the "Presidents for Life" quickly found retirement an attractive option.  In Libya, Gaddhafi had nothing to lose.  A murderer, war criminal and sponsor of international terrorism for forty years, there is no place he might seek a comfortable exile.  And to cling to power, he has lavished wealth upon those in his inner circle, leaving them to choose a democratic future fraught with the potential for a tremendous loss of wealth and status and a civil war in which they still hold many, if not most, of the cards.

Bahrain is different, a glaring manifestation of the festering sore of sectarian hatred and intolerance that will prevent real integration of Muslim nations from Persia up through Arabia for the foreseeable future.  In Sunni ruled Muslim nations, the Shi'a are hated and feared, and there is very likely no amount of political or economic pressure that can cause them to live in peace with their co-religionist neighbors.

Which brings us to Syria.  This is the big dog, the 800 pound gorilla of the Arab Spring.  And Bashar al-Assad has a pedigree in these matters.  In 1982 his father slaughtered tens of thousands of his own citizens in Hama to put down a Sunni rebellion.  He KNOWS how to deal with a rabble.  Except there are a number of things that have changed since 1982, and the risks of mass murder are very much higher than they were back then.  There is the Internet, with it's citizen journalists.  There is a world less willing to tolerate heads of state who cling to power by means of murder and intimidation.  There are organizations, from al Jazeera to the UN to NonGovs who cannot be silenced by al-Assad's intimidation.  But most of all, there is Turkey, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has shown himself to be smart, independent and courageous.  He was not willing to allow Israel to intimidate him into silence or inaction, and he stood up and said what the world knew to be true and was too cowed by American power to say themselves - that the Blockade of Gaza was a criminal act, collective punishment of the worst kind, and must not be allowed to go unchallenged.  Turkey had a long, productive military and commercial relationship with Israel, but Erdoğan's government didn't feel that they needed that relationship as much as they needed to speak truth and honor their values.  Once upon a time there were some Americans, in times of earlier challenge, who would clearly understand this position.  

Turkey, under Erdoğan has been willing to use its regional political, economic and military power to make a difference, following their own agenda rather than that of the US, Russia, China or even NATO.  But at the same time, as a NATO member, Turkey has a certain freedom of movement denied to others in the region, because there is, within the treaty, an obligation to mutual defense that leaves Turkey invulnerable to many coercive threats.

Now, by an accident of geography, the Syrian bloodletting is happening on the Turkish border.  Syrian Army tanks, gunships and artillery are even now leveling cities and murdering hundreds, if not thousands of their own citizens.  Members of the Mukhabarat are going from door to door with lists, summarily executing those whose names are known, or others who they mistake for a name on a list.  Thousands of refugees have scrambled across the border, where the well organized Turkish Red Crescent has set up camps and made sure they had food, water and medical treatment.  But thousands of other Syrians, guilty of nothing more than living in a blighted place, and perhaps being unhappy with a distant and unresponsive government, are trapped on the other side of the frontier, wondering if they will see a refugee camp or a Syrian machine gun first.

Now, here's where it gets interesting.  The Turkish Prime Minister has made a number of statements around the possibility of moving Turkish troops across the border to set up a buffer zone to protect Syrian citizens from the Syrian army.  This would be, obviously, a tremendously courageous move, fraught though it would certainly be with risk.  Any move across the border, however temporary and humanitarian in nature, would constitute an invasion and would certainly invite a Syrian military reaction.  But, on the other hand, President al-Assad has quite a bit on his plate, and he may be willing to suffer a small loss of face to avoid a border conflict with the immensely more powerful Turkish military.  

But either way, what we're seeing is something important.  The rise of a regional political, economic and military power headed by a genuine statesman.  The world has suffered, not from the rise of technocratic governance, and not even so much from the rise of ideologically driven governments, but from finger-in-the-wind governance.  We've watched one nation after another, sadly led by the United States, set aside any cast-in-stone values in preference for pragmatism, safety and political calculation.  There just doesn't seem to be any brave, unflinching statesmen operating on the world stage today.  Except, maybe, for one.  Except for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the only adult in the room...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Debt Ceiling

The big question that needs to be asked is why do we even HAVE a debt ceiling in the first place?  Under the US Constitution and the Separation of Powers, congress controls the purse strings.  That is, every dollar that the Federal Government spends is specifically appropriated in legislation.  Which makes debt ceiling legislation doubly ludicrous.  First, it is congress that 'spent' more money than they had - that money has to be borrowed, so it really seems that the approval for borrowing the necessary funds is implicit in the appropriation itself.  Second, since congress sets the debt limit, it's a little like the man who leaves his wallet in the car when he goes in the mall so he won't spend any  money.  If he decides to buy something, he merely has to walk back to his car to get it.  Likewise, the only entity that can spend money is congress, so imposing a debt limit that they can raise upon themselves is the most pointless kind of charade.

So the debt limit is clearly political grandstanding at it's most worthless and egregious, but we're stuck with it now.  Much like the draconian "Three Strikes" laws, everyone can privately recognize that it's been disastrous, but the political vulnerabilities inherent in coming out for reform or repeal eliminate any hope of a more logical approach to policy.

Historically, when it came time to raise the debt limit, the process was a well rehearsed, carefully choreographed dance.  The party in power would propose to raise the debt limit, whereupon the minority party would take political advantage of the situation to bludgeon their political opponents for being "reckless deficit spenders" who were destroying the promise of America for ensuing generations.  And then, when the time came, they would vote to raise the debt limit.  Because there really is no way to run a modern five trillion dollar Federal Government without the credit markets.  For that matter, there has never been any reason NOT to raise the debt ceiling, as the United States has plenty of capacity to generate the funds necessary to pay all its debts.

There is only one reason why a sovereign default would be a bad thing - interest rates.  All debt instruments are priced according to the current market return plus a "risk premium".  This is why Greek debt is so much more costly than German or American debt - in order to take on that higher level of risk, the creditors insist on a much higher return.  Safe debt = cheap debt.

Now, everyone knows that this is a special case.  The US is not going to default because she is broke - indeed, no one questions our ability to pay.  It is purely and merely a political gridlock problem, where ideological and partisan political differences within the US government have become so polarized and so acrimonious that the political system itself actually created a debt crisis.   So on the one hand, US bondholders don't doubt that they will be paid in full upon maturity, but on the other hand there is no reason to believe that Washington is going to get its political house in order anytime soon.  So based upon an expectation of further political rather than economic dysfunction, as soon as there is a default US debt will be saddled with its own risk premium.  And suddenly, that category down there in the lower right, Debt Service, begins to get larger every year, like another war or another deficit funded tax cut on the wealthy, eating dollars that might otherwise be spent making American's lives better:

Now it's still very much an open question what will happen in this debt ceiling fight.  Once again, the Republicans have put themselves in an impossible position.  Their business, corporate and wealthy investor class base want them to raise the debt ceiling before a default begins to have significant effects on corporate profits.  They're more than happy with the demagoguery, but when the time comes, they expect their employees in the congress to put their ideology in their pocket and, once again, make certain the the torrent of corporate revenues continues to flow unabated.  But this year there is a large contingent of Republicans who danced with the devil - the so-called tea parties - who don't care what they say or what happens necessarily, they only insist that Obama be resisted in all things.  Obama and the Democrats say the debt ceiling MUST be raised or bad things will happen - they must be lying.  The people who make up the core of the tea parties are not educated or sophisticated people.  Instead they are wholly indoctrinated, believing the President of the United States has, as a singular goal, the destruction of the very nation he leads, and that, as Communists, Muslims and/or Homosexuals, the Democrats are lying about everything.  And to these people, ANY vote to raise the debt ceiling, regardless of concessions from the Administration, will be considered a betrayal.

That being the case, there is a large contingent of Republican legislators who will not vote to raise the limit under any circumstances.  Depending upon their actual numbers, at some point Boehner may have to enlist the support of the Democrats in order to successfully capitulate to his corporate paymasters.  If that point comes, we can be certain that there will be negative effects, not only on the American economy, but on the global economy as well.  With growing violence in the middle east, the teetering Greek and Spanish economies and out of control inflation in China, it's only going to take one small shock to send us all back into a major economic depression.  And, of course, we find ourselves being led down this path by a political movement so blinded by ideology they managed to convince themselves that the American people only wanted a Medicare program if they could pay for it.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Incentives, The Agency Problem and the Decline of America

Anti-Virus and Computer Security firms receive a very large ongoing revenue stream for protecting computers and networks from viruses, malware and hackers.  And yet, it goes without saying that this vast river of wealth would quickly dry up if the threats were eliminated, or effectively prevented.

Pakistan receives a large subsidy from the US to fight the threat posed by Islamic militants inside that country.  But if the Pakistanis were to fight these groups TOO effectively, there would no longer be a compelling reason for the US to provide aid at these levels.

The US military budget is by far the largest in the world.  This trillion dollar expenditure supports thousands of quasi-independent fiefdoms, bureaucracies and internal organizations and partnerships.  But they are all dedicated, in one way or another, to fighting wars.  So the only way for any given military-industrial bureaucracy to guarantee its survival year-over-year is to find wars to fight.  What we might see as a "Peace Dividend" they see as an existential threat - for these organizations, peace is something to be avoided.

Banks, insurance companies, governments.  Everywhere we look, we find ourselves trying to solve one problem, only to be confronted by an agency dilemma.  Certainly we're guilty of not thinking creatively enough when making these sorts of arrangements, but we've also seen an evolution of the profit motive - it is precisely through these kind of skewed incentives that rent-seekers produce most of their profits.  When you demonstrate that you are willing to pay someone to solve a problem on your behalf, it is not in that contractor's best interest to solve that problem quickly, or permanently.  This is not a new discovery. The whole point of incentives in the first place is overcome this basic conflict of interest.  But the incentives need to be designed carefully, with safeguards in place to encourage genuine solutions, and not prolonged payments.

If, for example, we told the Pakistanis that were were going to withhold aid until certain counter-terror benchmarks were met, they might tell us to pound sand.  But it would align their interests more closely with ours, and like all contracts, if the incentives, milestones and payments were generous enough and appropriate to the demands, an agreement would at least be within reach.  And I submit that would be better than paying the Pakistani government billions to essentially pretend to be doing what we ask them to do, all the while making certain the "problem" remains critical enough to require further incentive payments in the future.

The US military is a particularly egregious example.  Inherently, large organizations strive to become larger, increasing their staffing, budgets and scope of responsibility.  It used to be that this tendency was, in the case of the military, effectively checked by the oversight of the political leadership.  The military leadership might have wanted their organization to grow, but they lacked the power to create the necessary conditions.  Wars were declared, managed and ended by the political leadership, leaving the military powerless to effect anything but the outcome of the fighting itself.  But the surest way for a military organization to grow is for there to be 'threats' and wars, and today we leave the management of both entirely up to the judgement of the military leadership themselves.  Our political leaders tell us that wars can only end "when the Generals tell us" they can.  Is it any wonder, really, that we find ourselves embroiled in multiple conflicts around the globe, lasting a decade or more?

Certainly, nobody is going to solve the age-old agency dilemma any time soon.  But it does seem as if it has been allowed to get worse - these kinds of skewed incentives acting as a sort of integral corruption, allowing rent-seekers to capture funds that would otherwise be put to productive use.  And there is no doubt whatsoever that these agreements could be restructured to reward actual solutions instead of becoming the permanent institutions they are now.

But negotiations in the new century have become more about manipulations, leveraging the power of inequality, an imbalance of wealth, of information, of legal power and precedent.  When one thinks about the growing mis-alignment of incentives, it's hard to look past the Patent Office.  Patents used to be a straightforward quid pro quo.  The patent award gave the developer of a new product a period of legally protected exclusivity to make certain he or she was amply rewarded for their invention, at which point the patent would expire so that the price of that product would be driven down by competition.  But years of political intervention, big money lobbying and questionable judicial decisions have turned what should be a straightforward application of governance into a dysfunctional labyrinth of rent seekers and unproductive motivations.  Now patents, and their bastard cousins in copyright law, actually serve to reduce innovation, raising the barriers to new products and new solutions, and the wealth generated by the incumbent rent-seekers is invested back into the political system to raise those barriers even higher.

The point isn't to call attention to a specific problem - the problem is well known, and it's only due to its massive scope that it's at all difficult to see.  The point is about how deeply rooted and intertwined our political and economic problems have become, and how destructive our institutions.  When you look at how the very systems and processes that have been developed to manage incentives and control the agency dilemma have been co-opted and manipulated to produce exactly the kind of counterproductive incentives they were created to prevent, you begin to realize the scale of any meaningful fix.  Root and branch, every nexus of government and industry would have to be torn out, and re-built from the ground up to serve society and community once again.  The fact that these institutions have become so powerful, and so good at protecting their own entrenched interests serves only to guarantee that there can be no fix until the entire system collapses under its own greed.

The end, when it comes, will be harsh, and extremely ugly.  There IS a tipping point.  The top 1% of the American people receive 25% of the income today.  One would think that, in itself, would be unacceptable, but all we can say for certain is that it IS unsustainable.  Eventually the people will realize they have become serfs, and it will occur to them that they are oddly well-armed serfs, and their resentment and envy and greed and fear and bigotry will boil over in a great paroxysm of destruction and bloodletting.  And new governments will arise, with new compacts with their populations, and great fanfare.  And the cycle will begin anew...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Humanitarian Military Intervention - Peace Through Superior Firepower?

Liberal Interventionism.  I know.  The very words produce an abject rejection, leave us recoiling in horror at the thought of another wasteful and ultimately pointless slaughter in the name of some loosely defined and incompletely supported set of 'values'.  But here's a thought.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the outcomes of international military humanitarian intervention have failed not on concept, but on execution.  You know, like the Zune™.

Perhaps it really is, ultimately, simple and obvious.  Perhaps confronting violence with more violence cannot lead to peace, just as common sense tells us it doesn't reduce violence.  Perhaps there is no place for the force of arms in modern international diplomacy, and if the community of nations cannot prevent a thuggish despot from killing and oppressing his neighbors or his own people by persuasion and negotiation, they should not attempt to do so by coercion.  Perhaps.

But I remain, frankly, unconvinced.  Just because we've seen major powers and the international organizations they form to implement extra-national diplomacy misuse their military power, using international laws and treaties, along with explanations of humanitarian intentions to justify the imposition of a specific agenda by force, or even to provide political and diplomatic cover for aggressive warfare.  And certainly there have been other cases, where the intent was good but the execution got caught up in political and military struggles to assert power that led to disasters like Somalia.  But the idealist in me continues to insist that with reasonably pure motives and a limited set of goals, the international community can come together to protect a helpless population from dictators, warlords and criminals for whom their lives are worth, at most, the cost of a bullet.

First, let's be clear.  Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were in no way humanitarian interventions.  They were essentially unilateral aggressive wars fought out of choice for entirely political reasons.  Korea and Gulf War I were arguably fought for good reasons, but Korea was mismanaged into a years long bloodbath where millions lost their lives and livelihoods, and while Gulf War I was perhaps the best example of how to fight a twenty-first century war, the aftermath descended into political acrimony, economic manipulation, murderous sanctions and thus became a festering regional open sore, driving political factions to increasingly brutal and radical positions for reasons that literally had nothing to do with Iraq itself.

Somalia was a poor choice for humanitarian intervention, because there was no political or even tribal or religious infrastructure to facilitate the delivery of food and medicine.  Remember, the intervention in Somalia was not originally intended to be a fight, but rather a mechanism to bring about a temporary end to the bloodshed and the delivery of desperately needed aid.  But it was the armed forces that were tapped to provide the relief services, and militaries tend to be uncomfortable with missions that do not primarily involve breaking things and hurting people, so the mission slowly and inevitably evolved into a combat role, and all hope of a good outcome was gone in a 24 hour paroxysm of bloodletting.  

Bosnia was a good example of what humanitarian intervention could have been.  But confusion, uncertainty, incompetence and outright cowardice left the good people promised a safe haven in Srebrenica occupying mass graves, and everything after that, despite a surprisingly good marketing campaign, turned forever to ashes.

So far, I think it is completely fair to see Libya as a success.  A strictly interpreted no-fly zone would have been the worst combination of intervention and ineffectiveness, but working as both the strategic and tactical air force for the Rebels has leveled the playing field and allowed the Rebels time to organize while the Gaddhafi loyalists could read the writing on the wall and decide to change sides.  There is no doubt that had the world not intervened, Gaddhafi's air, armor, heavy weapons and superior firepower would have quickly doomed the rebellion, and the fall of Misrata and later Benghazi would have been horrific, brutal massacres of the first order.  So the intervention in Libya has met the key criterion for humanitarian military intervention - the minimal force required to change the combat dynamic so the bad guy loses, while being prepared to kill members of either side in sufficient numbers if they threaten non combatants.  It certainly remains to be seen what the outcome and disengagement will look like, but so far it's pretty easy to see Libya as a successful operation.

I would have been prepared to support intervention in Rwanda and Sudan, but it seems that industrial scale murder and rape of civilians is necessary, but not sufficient to cause the international community, particularly the US and Europe, to act.  In a cynical moment, one might observe that in order to qualify for humanitarian intervention, a nation either needs to be populated by white Europeans, or have significant natural resources, particularly oil reserves.  This may or may not be exclusively true, as the sample size is necessarily small, but it obviously must be considered at least a contributing factor.  But one Ranger Battalion with sufficient air mobility could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda, and al-Bashir could have been coerced to moderate his behavior and control the paramilitaries by holding some of his more treasured assets at risk.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mac Defender - Old Lessons, Still Unlearned

I use generic PCs and Linux because they are cheap.  I have (almost) nothing against Apple's OSX or even Microsoft's Windows except for their cost.  Now the truth is I would prefer Ubuntu, SUSE or Fedora anyway, because of the small footprint, flexible configuration and willingness to abandon legacy technology that makes the commercial OSs so huge and clumsy.  But all in all, it's really just an economic and personal preference decision.

But one of the most odious things about Windows is the hordes of clamoring, shambling malware always pawing at the doors and windows like a legion of the undead, requiring an unacceptable amount of time and money to hold mostly at bay.  I've had not one, but two computers slowly die, groaning under the weight of too much malevolent and greedy software, installed dishonestly or even surreptitiously.  It's an unpleasant and somewhat creepy feeling to know that there are constant probes and attacks coming in just under the surface, all manner of unsavory and straight-up criminal attempts to steal or break your stuff.

Now, there are two ways to protect an OS from software with bad intentions.  First, you can harden the OS.  This may seem obvious, but it requires users to understand and explicitly approve any software installation at all, and unbelievably, users seem to be resistant to this minimal effort to control their computing environment.  Second, an OS can develop an ecosystem of for-profit companies that provide subscription-based protection against MOST viruses and malware.  It is important to bear in mind that these companies would be out of business in a year if Operating System vendors actually DID ship a secure, hardened OS, so one has to be suspicious of the symbiotic profit relationship between these industry segments and wonder just how high a priority the elimination of these sorts of threats might actually be.  In fact, we already know that they have the capability to detect and defeat threats heuristically, but insist upon the older, less capable 'pattern matching' approach.  Why?  Well, could it be that pattern matching requires continual updates that lends itself well to a subscription based approach that creates a recurring revenue stream, where software intelligence that could detect and disable a threat based on its behaviors would be a one-time purchase at best?

But as for the Mac, OSX and iOS, there is no real technological impediment to creating the same kind of horrific miasma of infections, rootkits and malware as we see on Windows.  Sure, it might be a little harder to write these packages for the Mac, and it might require a little more in the way of social engineering to convince people to install them, but that's nothing that can't be overcome with relative ease.  No, the real reason that the focus has been on Windows has been the overwhelmingly larger numbers of potential targets in the field.  But Apple has been having a LOT of success, not just with the iPod and iPhone, but with their computers too, and that makes them a more 'interesting' target.  And importantly, this is a user base that has zero experience dealing with the kind of high-threat environment that is the every day user experience using Windows.

Which brings us to Mac Defender and the seemingly out-of-proportion buzz around what would, in the Windows world, be an unremarkable and garden variety attempt to extract credit card information from a particularly gullible user.  It seems to me that it signals a widening of the fetid swamp that surrounds commercial operating systems.  At least one group of MalWare authors decided that there are enough Macs in the field at this point that they now represent a viable and potentially profitable target.  And although the Mac Defender infection is a clumsy and easily avoided one, you can be certain that its success in penetrating and disrupting the Mac user community has been noted, and will be quickly exploited by both the MalWare development and Anti-Virus communities.  Think of it as nothing more than a proof of concept, with more toxic and destructive keyloggers and rootkits, along with a new marketing message to drive the adoption of commercial anti-virus software to follow.

In short, Mac users can now expect to have to spend more time and money fending off the multitude of exploits, attacks and probes that have been a constant in the Microsoft world for decades.  In that respect their life will become more like Windows users, and their experience with the online universe will be more adversarial, and much less pleasant.  The snake is loose in the garden and nothing will ever be the same again.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Grim Fairy Tales - Economic Growth and the Future of the US Economy

American GDP is something north of fourteen trillion dollars.  Currently, GDP growth is anemic at best, so while it is not actually negative, it's not as if we're seeing any kind of healthy increase, even as 150,000 people join the workforce every month and the real unemployment rate is over 15%.  But to read even the most pessimistic pundits, there is an odd, yet profound sense of certainty that the American economy will get back on trend at SOME point - the debate is really around when, and whether that process can be expedited.  But no one expresses any doubt that by 2015, or 2018, or even 2021, America will be back to having a booming economy with a healthy unemployment rate under 5% and GDP growth in the 4-5% range.  It's true.  Go see if you can find anyone postulating American GDP declining over the next ten years.  I'll wait.

But what you'll notice is that none of these prognosticators explain where the growth might come from.  The growth is taken as a given, as if it is impossible to conceive of an America in decline.  I submit we're already there.

The American economy in the 21st century is predicated on two mutually supporting platforms.  The people, increasingly, work in service type jobs, and three quarters of GDP is consumer spending.  So the expectation, assuming someone is not postulating the imminent return of full-scale manufacturing employment to the US, is that there will be enough service jobs that pay enough money to support consumer spending that exceeds that which we saw in the peak of the housing and household credit bubble.  But that seems mathematically impossible.  Wages are flat, or falling.  Unions have collapsed, benefits and pensions are dying, people are expected to contribute to their own retirement (or what?  Well, that certainly remains to be seen.  But two words come to mind.  Cat.  Food.).  Energy, food and commodity prices are rising, a trend that cannot be expected to slow, and there is a kind of callous sense of heartless disinterest in the suffering due to economic hardships in our communities.  Public sector employment is declining steeply, the manufacturing and construction sectors are smoldering wreckage, and any job that can be outsourced to a place with cheap labor costs continues to vanish.

We can invent things.  But with the depressed economy, spending on R&D in the public, private and academic sectors is low and falling.  And when we DO invent something, the billions of dollars generated by building it go to offshore factories.  Even nominally 'good' trends can serve to reduce American economic activity.  For example, software is an area where America is strong, and yet virtually all the interesting innovations, from Web Services to Big Data Analysis to Core Operating Systems are happening in the Free Open Source community.  Sure, having access to Linux and Android and Tomcat and Hadoop can drive both innovation and employment, but it's hard to miss the fact that none of these immensely popular and necessary tools are being produced and sold by companies that employ people.

And when you look at sectors that do have some healthy growth, the picture only gets darker.  So-called 'Homeland Security' and 'Defense' spending account for a significant measure of US employment, but what is the multiplier effect of building a nuclear submarine, a secret radar system or drone aircraft?  These contracts provide jobs, but they do nothing to contribute to further economic growth beyond the retail consumer spending of those employed.  The prison system is similar - providing a lot of low-wage jobs in local communities at an immense economic and social cost.  In our narrow-minded quest to incarcerate vast segments of our poor and disenfranchised population in order to make our cities safe for more retail service jobs, we create a cancer that eats away at our society from below.

Most of the talk is around a "Green Industries" segment, but have you noticed that nobody can really tell you what that means?  First, any 'Green' or renewable energy technology will necessarily remain a niche technology as long as fossil fuels can maintain their artificial price advantage.  If we priced fossil fuels correctly, taking into account the negative externalities such as pollution and Global Climate Change, gasoline would approach $10 a gallon and there would be a real market for alternative transportation solutions, not to mention the sudden availability of R&D dollars for alternative energy generation solutions.  In fact, if we were to price fossil fuels and their carbon emissions correctly, Global Climate Change would very rapidly cease to be a problem.  People sometimes talk about a "Marshall Plan" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and this is precisely what that would look like.  Unfortunately, it simply is not going to happen.

But more to the point, is there something we call 'Green Industries' that genuinely could make a major contribution to American GDP growth?  What would it be?  Can we really make enough solar panels, windmills, fuel cells and weatherstripping to replace even a fraction of the depleted manufacturing base? I sure don't see how.

So here we are, on a treadmill headed slowly downward.  Unemployment is high, wages are flat, household debt is high.  So consumer spending is down.  As a result, the private sector seeks to avoid high employment and capital spending.  There is an immense and real need for infrastructure spending - roads, rail, sewage, smart grid, bridge maintenance - but in this political environment, fueled as it is by deep economic fears, there is no appetite for government spending, even when the Fed can borrow money literally at no cost.

So I'm stumped.  I recognize that few foresaw the massive technology driven growth of the 90s and early aughts, but at least there was an understanding that technology would contribute in some fairly large way to GDP.  Now?  Now technology consumption is a huge piece of American spending, but it's all imported.  The hundreds of billions of dollars generated by manufacturing our electronic devices goes to the GDP of developing nations.  And there's nothing to be done about that.  It was a race to the bottom, and we lost.

In the area around Vail, Colorado, there was over the last couple decades a great influx of wealth.  People of means wanted to live there, wanted a cabin there, wanted to vacation there.  The price of everything skyrocketed, from rents to home prices to everyday essentials.  Art galleries and upscale restaurants drove out supermarkets and bowling alleys.  Ultimately, there was a crisis as nobody could afford to live in Vail except consumers.  They wanted their hotel housekeepers, their waiters and busboys, their cops and janitors and plumbers, their dry cleaners and retail clerks.  And those people couldn't afford to live there.  The service providers had to scramble, subsidizing commutes, setting up private bus lines to bring workers as much as a hundred miles from where they could afford to live, even setting up dormitory - type accommodation for workers to stay in town.  This is a cautionary tale.

America cannot simply become a financial services economy sitting on top of a huge population of low-wage service workers catering to financial sector wealth.  If financial and corporate interests continue to strangle unions, export jobs, hold down wages and limit necessary government spending, they will find themselves living in walled compounds in an increasingly dystopian landscape of poverty, hatred and violence.  Certainly, they will have the option to leave for Switzerland, Germany or Dubai.  But one wonders if they even realize that if the American middle class consumer goes the way of the dinosaur, they will have to find a new supply of readily-influenced customers with significant disposable income to replace them - and that does no appear to be forthcoming.  At some point, it simply HAS to be in the interest of the plutocrats to make sure there are enough Americans with enough money to sustain their profit growth.  One wonders how bad things will have to get before they act on that interest...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Homeland Insecurity

Defense contractors Lockheed Martin and L3 communications have recently been the victims of an extremely professional and sophisticated team of hackers.  Their networks have been penetrated an unknown number of times, to an unstated degree, at a loss of unspecified data.  Now, the good news is that the most classified data sits on "air-gapped" networks, computers that cannot be accessed from the Internet, or even from any computer that can access the Internet.  But that doesn't mean that a tremendous amount of critical information wasn't compromised.  And here's the thing: Everyone KNEW this was going to happen, and it was entirely preventable.  There is simply no point in a public-private network security partnership when those partners are either unwilling or unable to act, even when they have certain knowledge of critical vulnerabilities.

Quick lesson in network security.  At its root, the network just needs to know that you really are who you say you are - this is called authentication.  Because if you are truly and legitimately YOU, the network knows what privileges you are entitled to.  As Bruce Schneir put it so succinctly, you provide authentication to the network in one or more of three ways:  What you know, What you have, and What you are.  Put simply, what you know is a password, what you have is some kind of device or smart card, what you are is biometrics.  If you secure a network using two of these, called "two factor authentication", there is virtually no way to hack that network by spoofing a legitimate login.  If someone gets your token, they don't have your password, and if they crack your password, they still need your token.  Of course, they can easily crack your password, so if they could somehow clone your token, they could authenticate as you to the network.  And the very assumed security of a network using a two factor authentication scheme would mean that it would be very hard to react to such a breach.

March, 2011.  EMC security subsidiary RSA, providers of the widely used SecureID network security token reported a network intrusion, with some uncertain level of data loss.  All the news wires carried the report, but very few people outside of the IT and Security communities had any sense of what it meant.  But many of us have been holding our breath, waiting for exactly this.  It seems incredible that RSA's clients wouldn't demand that every SecureID token be replaced immediately - how could you possibly be in the network security business and NOT assume that the tokens in the field are all compromised?

Think of RSA tokens like this.  It's a simple little device with a custom chip designed to do one thing.  The token itself has a unique identifier, and it leaves the factory with a 'seed', a numeric or alpha-numeric string that represents a 'starting point'.  Every one is different - or not, it theoretically doesn't matter.  Because every sixty seconds (or whatever interval is specified) the device takes the current string and does some kind of mathematical operation on it.  So it generates a different code every minute of every day that is known only to the device, and displayed when the user requests it.  So what the user has is a unique device that displays a unique number that can be verified as having been generated by a specific device.  There are over 40 million of these 'key fob' devices in use, along with over a hundred million software clients, often by very large multi-national firms and government agencies.

So back at least as far as March, RSA knew they had been hacked, and they knew it was at least possible, if not likely, that many, perhaps even all of their authentication code generating systems had been compromised.  They have thousands of clients, many with genuine high level security concerns, who depended on those systems to protect the data on their network.  How could they have decided to just go on with business as usual?  How could they not have told their customers, PAYING customers, that the Security devices they issued to their employees had become insecure, and that they could no longer trust that any authenticated login was not an attacker?  How could they not have begun a program of replacing those systems immediately?  Would it be embarrassing?  Yes.  Inconvenient?  Absolutely.  Expensive?  Tremendously.  But it's not like this is some unimportant IT side business.  This is RSA.  THE security company, in business to serve only one purpose - network security, encryption and authentication.  And far from providing those services at this point, they offered only a false sense of security and tens of millions of pathways into tens of thousands of 'secure' networks all over the globe.

It seems like a weird kind of paralysis has set in, all around the world, at every level.  Whether it's Climate Change, Unemployment, Regional Peace or even just basic Network Security, some unholy combination of the profit motive, political cowardice and tribal rancor has effectively eliminated the ability to take any action, on anything.  Everything costs money.  Everything entails risk.  But it seems as if doing nothing has become the cheapest, safest solution to every problem.