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.]

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.

New growing regions less fertile

Prairie plants
Prairie plants

One utterly predictable consequence of climate change is that the price of northern farmland will rise as growing regions shift north.

Tobias Buckell yesterday shared a report that just this sort of price shift is now occurring—interesting to me because this result is not merely predictable: I predicted it my own self, way back when I was in high school.

Global warming was still pretty speculative then (in the 1970s), but people were already talking about the greenhouse effect and trying to figure what the result would be. At the time, I was mainly thinking about the geopolitical implications of  shifting the growing regions north—how things would change if Canada and the (then) Soviet Union were suddenly way more productive of food, while places like the United States, China, and France suddenly less so.

What I discovered, though, was that those northern regions aren’t nearly as fertile as places like Illinois, where 8,000 years of tall grass prairie left an incredibly thick layer of rich soil.

No matter how perfect the climate is, Saskatchewan is not going to produce the bushels per acre of Illinois or Kansas. Their soil is not only less fertile, it’s also much more fragile than the soil of the tall grass prairies. The fertile layer isn’t as deep, so the land must be plowed with greater care, and it will in any case be more quickly depleted.

I’m sure there’s a lot more and better data available now than there was back then, but I doubt if it changes the fundamentals. Shifting growing regions means winners and losers, but it also means less total food production.

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.

What climate change looks like

One of the things I try to do in my fiction is show any collapse scenario as a process.

Your standard “if this goes on” story is all about looking ahead to see the result of current trends. But trying to see the endpoint of climate change, peak oil, habitat destruction, environmental degradation, or any similar process is going to be misleading. There is no endpoint—things keep going on.

I think the destruction wrought by Sandy is a good example. I’ve read a lot of stories set in a world where climate change has inundated the coasts. What aren’t nearly as common are stories set in the world we’re approaching: A world where the coasts are inundated only 1% of the time (or, a bit later, 2% of the time). A world where we see a 100-year storm every 8 or 10 years. A world where all our infrastructure spending is going for repairs, and yet we keep falling behind.

I say this is a world we’re approaching, but we may have already reached it. How many 100-year storms can you have in a decade before you have to admit that it’s not just a statistical anomaly, but rather is the new reality?

Guns versus cars

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.