When you mess with reporters

I’ve always admired the way reporters come together when a reporter is messed with. It reminds me of the way the police engage in a big show of force when a policeman is killed.

Once when running a quick errand, I found that I’d put myself on the other side of an hour-long police funeral procession. It did not endear the police to me, but it did make a powerful statement that the police are not just willing to make people suffer when a policeman is killed, they want to make everyone suffer. They think it gets the incentives right. They think if everyone suffers just a little bit when a policeman is killed, everyone will have just a little bit more interest in keeping that from happening.

I think that sort of tactic is ill-advised—almost all people are much more strongly motivated by decency and compassion than they are by intimidation. But I understand that the police are motivated more by grief than by thinking a show of force will make a difference. Their legitimate feelings make it hard to argue with their tactic, even when its results will be mixed.

Reporters are better at being circumspect and targeted with their reaction, but when anybody within the power structure messes with a reporter, a vast swath of the journalistic community sits up and takes notice. They write stuff about what happened. They point out governmental overreach. They remind one another that they’re all on the line if this goes unchallenged—and they remind ordinary people that the same powers being used against reporters are available to be used against ordinary people.

It’s really good to see. It’s not perfectly effective, but it is effective.

It’s the right response.

Dismissing privacy

I’ve been very disappointed by many friends’ cavalier attitude toward both our government’s invasions of our privacy and its use of the most extreme forces of legal process against those who would tell us the truth about what the government has been doing.

One specific disappointment has been the various versions of “I don’t care if the government listens to my calls. I’ve got nothing to hide.” (Usually with some lame joke about how tedious it would be to listen to their conversations.) It’s as if they know nothing about what led to the American revolution. Didn’t these people go to high school? Don’t they know that each of the privacy-related rights spelled out in the constitution was there for good and specific reasons—because of actual abuses suffered by ordinary people?

The most disturbing of the recent revelations is not how much data that they’re sweeping up (pretty much everything) nor the incredibly lax standards they seem to have about exposing the data (my data and their own!) to a surprisingly large number of people. It’s that they’re sweeping up everything and then keeping it for years.

There are several problems here, but I want to focus on two of them.

It’s not okay just because it’s still secret

At one level, I understand people who trust the government enough to think that it’s okay (or at least less bad) to have the government sweeping up all their private information—as opposed to, let’s say, Google or Facebook or Microsoft (or Monsanto or ADM) doing it. I can accept the ideal of government as a force for good. We’re still reasonably close to having a functional democracy—a few tweaks to campaign finance law and we might very well get back a government that was responsive to the desires of its citizens.

But even if you trust the government not to use your information inappropriately, I think recent events prove that you can’t trust them to keep it secret. We’ve just seen a large leak of exactly the information that the government has been trying it’s very hardest to keep secret. But we only know about it because a brave leaker went public and because a free press published what they’d learned. How many leaks were not to the public, but instead to a foreign government or a criminal organization? We don’t know, because those leaks go unreported. We can’t know. Even the government doesn’t know, and if it did know it wouldn’t tell us.

If the government can’t keep the details of its own most secret programs from becoming public, why would you imagine that it could keep your details secret? For all you know, your information has already been leaked to criminal organizations, to foreign governments, to domestic corporations, to lobbying organizations and other influence peddlers—to anybody who could get an advantage by knowing secrets.

Maybe massive amounts of your information collected by the NSA have already leaked. The next time there’s an unauthorized charge on your credit card, maybe it’s because the NSA leaked your credit card number.

And of course that would just be true information about you. Maybe there’s a bunch of false information about you in the giant NSA databases. The next time you get turned down for a credit card or insurance or a job, maybe it’s because false information about you leaked to people who used it to make a decision about it.

And here is where we get back to why the idea that “I’ve got nothing to hide” is such a terrible idea.

It’s not okay just because you have nothing to hide

One friend made a short list of every “crime” he could remember having committed—a couple of youthful indiscretions, a couple of protests, a couple of harmless acts that were circumstantially appropriate but perhaps violations of some code or another. He was willing to own up to those—”If you want to prosecute me, go ahead!”

But, of course, that’s not how it works. The federal government doesn’t care about such things—or, at least, it doesn’t care until you become a “person of interest” in some other matter.

I don’t know whether my friend has committed any other federal crimes or not. But I do know that he has crossed international borders several times in the last few years. Did he fill out the requisite paperwork correctly each time? Did he carry anything across the border that he shouldn’t have, such as an agricultural product? Did he declare in the section on agricultural contacts that one of his running paths was also frequented by feral pigs? Is he sure that none of his financial dealings falls under the ambit of any federal laws?

In the real world, the federal government goes out and checks these sorts of things if they suspect you of something. Worse, they go and check these things if they suspect one of your friends of something (because it gives them leverage to get you to incriminate your friend). But now they’re going to have another whole bunch of things to check—all your phone calls and emails for the past 5 years.

And don’t forget that it’s trivially easy to convict you of conspiracy. All it takes is a single “overt act,” such as lending a friend bus fare or taking in his mail when he’d on vacation. (Well, technically it also takes an agreement and criminal intent, but apparently it’s okay if the only person in the conspiracy with those is the FBI informant.)

Don’t imagine that you’ve “done nothing wrong” just because you’re not aware of it. Unless you’re a federal prosecutor or defense attorney, you have no idea the vast array of actions that turn out to be federal crimes. One of our biggest protections has been that it’s a lot of effort to investigate and look for those crimes. If all your phone calls and emails are recorded it’s going to be a lot less effort.

As I say, I don’t dismiss out of hand the idea that the government is overall a force for good. I think our government (at all levels) has been pretty effective these last 150 years or so in reducing all sorts of bad things—there’s less poverty, there’s less casual violence, there’s less abuse of vulnerable people. But I don’t think giving the government audio recordings of all our phone calls, the texts of all our emails, or lists of every web page we visit will be much help in those things. And I think it will do real harm in those (fairly rare, but not rare enough) instances when people acting under color of law decide that somebody must be guilty of something, and make use of these new tools to prove it.

The huge win of moderately high-speed trains

Since there scarcely any thought of building them in the US, it’s silly to worry about the downsides of real high-speed trains, but it’s the sort of thing I tend to worry about. After all, the math is kind of scary.

It’s only 135 miles from Champaign’s Illinois Terminal to Chicago’s Union Station. If your trains can average 135 mph, you could make the commute in an hour—a long commute, but well within the range that many people find acceptable.

On a train that fast, you could depart Champaign at 6:45 and get to your desk anywhere in the Loop by 8:00. Another train that left at 7:45 could get you to Union Station in time to be at your desk at 9:00. Combine those with similar trains that departed shortly after the close of business and got you back to Champaign in time for supper, and suddenly Champaign offers all of its regular attractions plus all the attractions of Chicago.

Personally, I think that would be awful. It could easily attract thousands of new residents to Champaign—and Champaign does not need thousands of new residents.

Happily, the high-speed rail network that the US is actually building operates at a top speed of 110 mph—fast compared to highway speeds, but nothing like an average of 135 mph. I don’t know what sort of average speed that would produce, allowing for congestion and stops along the way, but let’s just pick a number and say we could average 90 mph. That would mean that it would take one hour thirty minutes to get to Chicago.

Suddenly the math for making Champaign a bedroom community is much less compelling. At 90 mph, the furthest you could live from Chicago and still have a one-hour commute would be Gilman. As a practical matter, people who found the idea attractive would probably live in Kankakee instead. Not that I have anything against Kankakee, but better they get thousands of downtown Chicago workers than we do.

While averting the downside of turning Champaign into a bedroom community, moderately high-speed rail service is still great for non-commuters. Amtrak service to Chicago is already pretty good—fine for a day trip to Chicago. I can catch the City of New Orleans at 6:00 AM and get to Chicago before the museums open. After a day in the city I can either leave around 4:00 PM on the Illini and get home in time for supper, or I can have an early supper in Chicago, leave around 8:00, and get home by bedtime. Imagine if those trains averaged 90 mph.

Better, imagine a couple of 110 mph trains making evening runs designed to allow people in Champaign to head into the city after work, arrive early enough for a late dinner—or, if they ate dinner on the train, a show—and then return in time to spend the night in their own bed.

The more I think about it, the happier I am with the (objectively pretty lame) moderately high-speed rail taking shape in the US. It has great potential to make Chicago accessible for half-day or evening visits without the downside of turning Champaign into a bedroom community.

(All these meditations prompted by Andrea Mayeux‘s article Researchers say high-speed rail could fuel U.S. real-estate, economic booms, via Tobias Buckell’s post High speed rail could spark a real estate boom in second tier cities.)

What was privacy?

I had the great good fortune to learn early on that anything posted to the internet is there forever. That knowledge has guided my internet activities for twenty-five years now, and keeping it perpetually in mind has stood me good stead so far. My basic rule is simple: I don’t post anything to the internet unless I’m intending to publish it to the world at large.

So, I’m happy to post the articles and stories I write, and happy to post links to them. That information is deliberately made public. I also post about things I do (and share links to things other people write), but only with the knowledge that each such post is part of my permanent public persona.

The exceptions (commercial, banking, credit card, insurance, and medical sites) are carefully considered, minimized as best I can, and monitored so that I have some hope of detecting and limiting the harm from failures. I expect the information that I share with them will remain private—but I use the word “expect” in much the same way an eighth-grade teacher might use it when telling her students “I expect each one of you will be well-behaved during our field trip.”

Because of this perspective, I pay very little attention to the “privacy” settings of social media sites. Whatever I post is intended to be public, so it makes no sense to constrain it. I do try to keep a grip on things that I don’t intend to be public. For example, I only attach location information to my posts on a case-by-case basis.

As I say, this has stood me in good stead up to this point. But, as Bruce Schneier points out, we’re already well past the inflection point between a past when such efforts mattered and a present and future where they do not. I carry my phone with me most of the time, so my location is already known to a third party—which means that, as a practical matter, it can be known to anybody who cares enough to get the information. Cameras are nearly ubiquitous—even before drones make it possible for them to be actually ubiquitous (and social media sites have already gathered ample data to support any facial recognition effort).

Anybody who’s working on the public policy aspects of these issues who’s not familiar with David Brin’s Transparent Society work is making a mistake. Privacy has no future. It hasn’t for a long time. Transparency is our best hope for keeping this fact from making the unequal power relationships in society much worse.

[Update 22 May 2011: I found the post from 2003 where I tell the story of just how I learned this lesson, back in 1990.]

Champaign considers allowing backyard chickens

more-st-croix-chickensThe News Gazette had an article yesterday saying that the Champaign City Council has agreed to “schedule a study session” on the topic of legalizing backyard chickens.

Tom Bruno, who was the guy who offered me some encouragement when I inquired earlier seems ready to support the idea. Other members of the council sounded more ambivalent. The comments on the News Gazette article are decidedly mixed as well. (The people who object not because they think the chickens would actually cause any sort of problem, but because they’re afraid that it would make the area seem too “redneck” surprise me.)

So, it’s by no means a sure thing. Time to get organized.

Reducing poverty

I’m big on reducing poverty, both locally and globally. (I do worry that more rich people will use more resources, suggesting that reducing poverty isn’t an unalloyed good thing. On yet another hand, only rich people can afford things like sequestering carbon or preserving habitat. It’s complicated.)

Since I’m interested in reducing poverty, I was interested in Lant Pritchett’s recent talk Everything you think you know about poverty is wrong.

Pritchett and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on how to have a rich country, I think.

These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

This has interesting implications for global development, because these are all things where it’s very difficult to improve someone else’s situation. If a country has government by-and-for the elites, or a corrupt bureaucracy, it’s going to be poor—and there’s very little outsiders can do to help. One of Pritchett’s points is that things that seem like they might help, such as improving education, seem to do more harm than good—perhaps because well-educated corrupt bureaucrats are worse than ignorant ones.

His solution is for rich countries to create or expand guest worker programs, which I think is a poor idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it would work. A poor worker who came to a rich country and worked a couple of years could both support relatives back in the poor country and save up enough money to return home and start a business. That would relieve poverty both immediately and going forward. It would also produce another person with first-hand experience of the advantages of a less-corrupt society (as opposed to merely seeing the advantages of getting in on the corruption).

The main reason I think it’s a poor idea is that enforcing a guest worker program eventually requires a police state. Somebody has to check all workers—it’s the only way to identify those who aren’t legally entitled to work. Somebody has to make sure those whose permission to work has expired get fired. Those whose permission to live here has expired, but who don’t go home, become an underclass with all the usual problems of an underclass—crime, violence, oppression, disease. I’ve written about this before (see Missing the point on immigration).

There is also the issue of how guest workers affect salaries, wages, and working conditions of citizen workers (short version: I think it makes them worse).

The ideal solution, of course, would be for every country to be rich enough and free enough that people from all over the world would want to move there. But that just brings us back to where we started.

Bruce Schneier removing anti-security features

Security expert Bruce Schneier wrote last week about some changes he was making to his blog to remove some anti-security features. Reading over his list of changes, I was pleased to see that I’d mostly avoided adding anti-security features to my blog in the first place.

  • No offsite tracking. Although I’ve experimented with them a couple of times, I don’t have “like” or “share” buttons on my blog posts, so your visits here are not automatically transparent to Facebook, Twitter, Google, or other social media sites. It means you’ll have to copy the link yourself if you want to share my posts. I’d be delighted if you did, so I hope that’s not too onerous.
  • No offsite searching. Similarly, the site’s search facility runs right on the site itself, just doing an SQL query of the database that holds the content of my site. Doing a search here doesn’t expose your query to anyone else. (I once looked to see if I was logging queries and couldn’t find them; as far as I know, doing a search here doesn’t even expose your query to me.)
  • No offsite feed. I also run the RSS feed for the site right on the site, and always have. I thought for a while that I ought to use feedburner, but I never got around to it, and now it’s clear that laziness led me to the right choice.

Any attempt to keep internet activity private is probably hopeless, but that’s no reason not to try.

New expectation on the debt ceiling

During the debt ceiling crisis back in 2011, I suggested that it would be no big deal if the government just “prioritized” spending so as to match revenues for however long it took Congress to get its act together and raise the debt ceiling. I got some push back on this by people who said I was crazy if I thought that much spending would suffice, but I never thought it would suffice—I was just sure that the result would be so onerous that Congress would knuckle under in no time. I figured that was what the Treasury secretly had in mind.

I’ve changed my mind.

It would have gone like this: The laws are contradictory—Congress sets the tax rates, Congress sets the spending levels, Congress sets the debt ceiling. The poor Treasury, simply doing the best it could in a no-win situation, would hold up pretty much all payments except interest on the debt, judges pay, soldiers pay, and social security. Once payments to major corporations in districts where recalcitrant Congressmen lived got held up, the stalemate would have ended pretty quickly.

I no longer think that’s what’s going to happen. Basically, I’ve come around the view that the Treasury meant what it said when it claimed that its hand were tied: It is legally required to spend the money the Congress has appropriated, whether the money is raised or not.

And I think there’s a solution.

Really, it’s the same solution as the “platinum coin” solution or the “issue scrip” solution, but those solutions are just gimmicks to put a pseudo-legalistic shine on what basically amounts to paying our bills by printing money.

I don’t think there’s any need for the gimmick. I think what the Treasury means to do once the headroom for keeping under the debt ceiling runs out is: Nothing. They’ll just go on writing checks exactly as they’ve been doing.

They’ll stop issuing new debt of course, so there’ll be no new money in their account at the Federal Reserve to pay the checks.

At which point, I’m reasonably sure, the Federal Reserve will just pay the checks anyway—which the Fed can easily do by just crediting the depositing bank’s account. (In other words, printing the money.)

Basically, the Fed would let the Treasury run an unlimited overdraft.

This works on several levels.

First of all, it doesn’t require any reprogramming or rejiggering of the Treasury’s numerous systems for making all the many payments they make every day. (No entity makes more payments than the US Treasury.) That’s good, because any attempt to do so would be problematic at best, and probably catastrophic in the short term.

Second, the people who are being most recalcitrant about raising the debt ceiling are the ones who would be most outraged. (I can just see them frothing at the mouth. Oh noes! Inflation!!1!)

Third, under the current circumstances, it would probably be good for the economy. I’ve pretty much come around to Paul Krugman’s analysis that at the zero bound there is no inflation risk to printing money. Even better, if it did produce some inflation, that might get us up off the zero bound. (I for one would be very pleased to be able to earn a return on my capital.)

A generation ago the Fed would have hated this—bankers used to hate overdrafts in the deepest depths of their bowels. But overdrafts have been so profitable for banks these past 20 years or so, I expect we have a whole generation of bankers who have gotten over it.

As to whether it’s really legal or not, that’s something for the courts to decide. The debt ceiling applies to debt “subject to the limit.” The Fed and the Treasury will just say that, while an overdraft is debt, it’s not debt “subject to the limit.” The debt ceiling will be resolved long before any court case plays out.

The Treasury never admitted to having any contingency plans last time. Their take on it was that not raising the debt ceiling was unthinkable, therefore they would not think about it. But this is the only thing I can think of that could actually play out without chaos. If they weren’t planning on doing this (or something much like it), they’d have done something by now (such as having a dry run of their scheme for prioritizing payments).

Last time, I figured we’d get an 11th hour deal. This time, I think it’s pretty likely that the debt ceiling won’t get raised, and I think the Treasury will actually end up doing this—so I thought I’d share my thinking in case people find it useful.

Gun control in a democracy

I think I know why it has been so difficult to pass any sort of significant gun control legislation in the United States.

Most democracies in the world have gun control laws, which serves as an existence proof that it is possible, and yet in the US gun control has been very much a matter of x steps forward, y steps back (with what you see as the values for x and y very much depending on your political position).

You can point to “historical reasons” or “cultural reasons” for our unique situation, and you’d certainly be right, but I don’t think that serves as much of a guide to anyone who wants change (in either direction). Instead, whether you advocate or oppose gun control, think for a minute what it means to have gun control—or any kind of government control—in a democracy.

In a democracy, you’re going to end up with laws that are (to a first approximation) supported by a majority of the people. In fact, in the sort of representative democracy we have in the US, it’s very hard to get any substantive change in the law unless it’s supported by substantially more than a bare majority, because it’s so easy for a determined minority to delay or block changes.

What that says to me is that, in a democracy, changing the law has to begin with changing people’s opinions.

Trying to do things the other way around—by pushing for legislation in advance of majority support—leads to exactly what we’ve seen these past few decades:

  1. Laws that are ineffectual, because they are loaded up with compromises needed to cobble together a majority in the legislature.
  2. A stiffening of opposition to the legislation, because opponents feel their viewpoint has been ignored.

If you want to get something like this done, your best bet is to follow the model provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They wanted stiffer penalties and lower blood-alcohol limits, but their efforts in the legislator were initially quite ineffective. Where they were first influential was in changing public opinion.

In the early 1960s, drunk driving was something to be laughed at. Many a comedy bit was created around taking some guy so drunk he couldn’t stand up, pouring him into his car, and sending him off weaving down the road. They were funny. Watch those same sketches now and they’re appalling.

Once public opinion was changed, changing the laws was easy—because we live in a democracy.

There’s a second reason public opinion needs to change first: The police are  unable to enforce laws that aren’t broadly supported, except through police-state tactics.

If you have broad support—not just a majority, but a general consensus across society—then it’s easy to enforce laws. Few people break them. When they are broken, witness come forward to report the crimes. When people are prosecuted, juries convict and judges impose sentences as prescribed by law.

How would you enforce a gun law that was opposed by half the population?

It would be easy enough to enforce a law against open carry of a firearm, but enforcing a law against concealed carry would require the police to stop and frisk people on the street. (Of course, this happens already in certain neighborhoods. People who live in those neighborhoods are properly outraged, as are those who believe in freedom. But let it start happening in neighborhoods full of middle-class people—neighborhoods full of voters—and the laws would get changed back very quickly indeed. At least, I hope they would.)

It would be even harder to enforce a law against owning a firearm in your home. Even in the sorts of neighborhoods where people are routinely stopped and frisked, the police are not yet so bold as to enter and search people’s homes. But without that step, illegal guns would linger for decades. Indeed, for generations. And with that step, I suspect we’d see the law changed back very quickly: Many of the same people who support gun control would still object to the police-state tactics that would be necessary to impose a ban on guns.

And, lest I be accused of arguing against a straw man, on the grounds that “no one” is arguing for a ban (just reasonable regulation), I’d like to point out that the enforcement problem is the same.

I suppose the intermediate step that gun control advocates anticipate would be laws that regulate gun ownership, but with enforcement happening only when guns are discovered incidentally: If your house is searched for some other reason, then your illegal guns will be found and their presence will be used to pile on additional penalties. I most particularly object to that scenario, just as I object to all scenarios where ordinary people are required to keep their papers in order or face harsh penalties.

My main point here, though, is that seeking changes in the laws should always be a second step. First, seek a consensus in society that things should be different. Do that and it’s easy to change the law and easy to enforce it.

Dancing on the edge of the fiscal cliff

The tea-party right was willing to risk the hard stop in spending that would have resulted from running up against the debt limit—a game of chicken that neither the Democrats nor the sane fraction of the Republicans could take the risk of losing.

The fiscal cliff looks a little similar, but it’s much less dangerous. It’s a game that lends itself to playing through to the end, because the risk of losing isn’t nearly so bad.

Suppose we did go over the fiscal cliff. What would happen?

First, tax rates would go up for everybody. That’s bad, but it’s not terrible. Actually, taxes at those rates would produce revenue roughly equal to the amount of government people seem to want.

Second, spending would be cut, with the cuts falling on almost everything except Social Security. A lot of good stuff would be cut, but that might not be such a stiff price to pay, considering that a lot of the things that ought to be cut (such as defense spending far beyond our needs) would otherwise be very hard to cut.

The result would be a rough year or two, hard on everybody from working-class folks to defense contractors, but all those problems would be fixable. In fact, Congress would love to fix those problems! Congress could cut taxes! (Just not as much as Bush did.) Congress could boost spending! (Just not to current levels.) Really, there’s nothing congressmen like better than cutting taxes and spending money on stuff.

The other details are similar. The AMT would strike middle-class folks hard, but that could be fixed, too. In fact, having to fix it would be an opportunity to improve it—turn it back into what it was supposed to be, a minimum tax rate that applies to everyone, no matter how many tax shelters they have or how many special preferences they qualify for. The end of the “doc fix” would hurt health care providers, but that could be pretty easily fixed too. (We’ll no doubt have to make a lot of small changes to healthcare stuff, once health care reform goes into effect and we run into the inevitable glitches.)

It’s always hard to raise taxes and cut spending, so it’s hard to do what needs to be done. But that’s why the fiscal cliff is so perfect. Once we go over the edge, we won’t need to raise taxes and cut spending—we’ll need to cut taxes and raise spending, and that’s dead easy.

Dive over the fiscal cliff, then fix things. It’s not perfect, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as what we’ve got now.