It’s a mean world after all

There’s a hypothesis floating out there somewhere called the “mean world hypothesis.” It suggests that the emphasis on crime and violence on television leads viewers to perceive the world–or more precisely, society–as more dangerous than it actually is.

This has all sorts of ill effects. It means that even as crime has been decreasing, people often perceive that it has been increasing. It leads to higher funding for police and prisons, even at the expense of education, which might help to reduce crime. It also diverts attention from white collar crime, which is probably at least as costly and at least as dangerous, but which the criminal so-called justice system rarely involves itself with.

And I’m probably not stretching too far to suggest that it combines with the racism and classism of the criminal so-called justice system, both of which Jeffrey Reiman documents at length in The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, to stigmatize groups that are already at a disadvantage and to legitimate what David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel define as structural violence–the deprivation of various forms of opportunity–in Peace and Conflict Studies.

It becomes a self-fulling prophesy. As a number of great anarchists have pointed out, prison is a dehumanizing experience. People who survive it emerge brutalized and a little less human. They face limited prospects for employment, so are compelled to further crime, which is one reason recidivism rates are so high.

And word has it that a prison experience is particularly brutal for incarcerated ex-cops. Contemplating this, it well-behooved Johannes Mehserle to put on the performance he did on the witness stand in his trial for the murder of Oscar Grant with a shot in the back on a BART station platform.

I’m guessing that this, in combination with expert testimony suggesting Mehserle would have been justified in using a taser on Grant, will lead the Southern California jury–with no African-American members–to fail to convict Mehserle. This will reinforce a widely held view in Oakland neighborhoods and elsewhere that the so-called justice system protects whites–and police in particular–against blacks.

It is as if the criminal so-called justice system is seeking a race war, the better to exterminate blacks who, due to structural violence, already suffer a reduced life expectancy in many inner cities. That might be even a little meaner than what we’re doing to them already.

But that’s not all I’m thinking of. Paul Krugman is certainly not alone in attempting to explain that trying to cut spending while joblessness is so high will undermine any recovery, effectively leading to further deficits. As Krugman put it,

Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea — not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.

Now Krugman’s projecting a third great depression, but as he also notes, “anti-stimulus appeals to a fundamental meanness of spirit that is always present in the political world.”

That last comment bears a little further exploration. He’s right, but without analysis, he offers little in the way of explanatory power. And without that explanation, Robert Samuelson’s muddled analysis, which confounds all of a very disparate Europe, that among numerous possibilities suggests that “greater debt frightens investors” might persuade. But even this deserves further exploration–and for the same reason as the last line I quoted from Krugman.

This entire debate, pitting unemployment against an illusion of fiscal prudence, with the latter prevailing, suggests that the financial system–which is apparently accountable to no one–is more important than the people who are unemployed, whom both Krugman and Samuelson suggest may now be permanently unemployed. Why is that so? If the financial system is so broken as to condemn so many people, we should welcome its demise.

But we don’t. Because we’re mean. Just as the criminal so-called justice system excuses the crimes of the rich, just as it offers greater comfort to a cop who shot a man dead who was face down on a platform than to the deceased’s family, and just as we keep hearing from politicians that we have extended unemployment benefits long enough, we will protect the financial system even against the people it is supposed to serve.

I am reminded of a passage from George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think:

The world must be and must remain a competitive place. Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person. If competition were removed, self-discipline would cease and people would cease to develop and use their talents. . . .

Even if survival were not an issue, even if the world could be made easier, even if there were a world of plenty with more than enough for everybody, it would still not be true that parceling out a comforable amount for everyone would make the world better and people better. Doing that would remove the incentive to become and remain self-disciplined. Without the incentive of reward and punishment, self-discipline would disappear, and people would no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments, and carry them out. All social life would come to a grinding halt. To prevent this, competition and authority must be maintained no matter how much material largesse we produce.

Lakoff, I should hasten to explain, is describing the conservative “critical father” morality system. And in fact, we are producing much more than we need, so we ought to be able to afford to be generous. But the liberal “nurturant parent” perspective that would suggest greater cooperation and greater compassion for people is nowhere to be seen in our politics or in our society. We have become mean and we have embraced meanness.

Lay down your weapons

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

I’ve had this to say about police for a while:

  • They are the only people in society authorized to use even deadly force against others.
  • The authorization to use force colors any action they may take such that in effect, force is their only tool.
  • They employ force in the service of a system of law, passed by an overwhelmingly wealthy white male elite to apply to everyone else, and order, meaning the socioeconomic hierarchy, particularly expressed as property (of which the rich have more).
  • They organizationally resemble gangs, with their own colors, rigid hierarchies, and enforced orders.
  • Just as elites pass laws directed at “others,” police enjoy a certain immunity from laws that apply to “others” and their testimony is privileged in court.

It was over a year ago when then-BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant on a subway platform. Grant, an African-American, was face down. Mehserle is white. Widely-circulated cell phone videos did not show Grant resisting in any way that justified the use of a taser, let alone a gun. Mehserle is now on trial for that shooting and has taken the stand in his own defense. According to the San Francisco Chronicle,

Former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle wept on the witness stand at his murder trial today as he testified that he had killed Oscar Grant by mistake.

Mehserle, 28, said he was trying to use his Taser to subdue Grant on the platform of the Fruitvale Station in Oakland early Jan. 1, 2009, for allegedly resisting police following a fight on a train. He didn’t realize he had shot Grant, 22, until he looked in his right hand after firing and saw he was holding his pistol, the former officer said under questioning by defense attorney Michael Rains.

It’s evident from a long history of white police officers shooting blacks under–at best–dubious circumstances and of their subsequently being cleared of wrongdoing by their peers; numerous allegations of racial profiling; incarceration statistics that show disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison; an incident involving a university professor at Cambridge; the Rodney King beating and numerous episodes like it, that police departments are racist institutions, that police officers include far too many vicious bigots and their enablers amongst their ranks, and that the criminal so-called justice system systematically discriminates against blacks.

But as egregious an example of racism as the Oscar Grant shooting is, and that this is only one more among so many examples, are not my point today. I want to entertain, just for a moment, a possibility that Mehserle is telling the truth when he claims he meant to tase rather than to shoot Grant. I further want to set aside the fact that the circumstances did not justify even the use of a taser.

I want to consider the possibility that in the heat of a moment, an officer might confuse his gun for a taser. And in so doing, I also want to forget, just for a moment, that guns feel different and operate differently from tasers, that they are kept in separate holsters, and that police are trained not to confuse them.

I remember a professor of mine, Robert Terrell, who now thinks I am “reluctant to discuss race,” saying of gun rights that before people should have their guns taken away, the police should give up theirs. He pointed out that entire neighborhoods live in greater fear of the police than of the supposedly criminal gangs that the police are supposed to protect people against.

The simple fact is that police too readily resort to force. Because, as some might phrase an analogy, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But of course, police carry many tools, all of them implements of force. Even when the red light appears in your rear view mirror, you pull over not for the unexpected pleasure of a conversation with a cop, but for fear of the consequences should you fail to comply.

And as Henry Gates, that professor in Cambridge discovered last year, “disorderly conduct” is one charge police may lay on you when you fail to do what they say. Another is resisting arrest: Grant didn’t live to learn that lesson.

As a former teacher of disadvantaged students, I had a number who explained that the appeal of gangs is that they provide a social connection–a sense of belonging–which families and presumably legitimate societies now fail to offer. And when I see the resemblance between police and gangs, I realize that vesting the power of life and death in the former is no more responsible than vesting it in the latter.

It is time for police to lay down their guns.

We have arrived

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

(UPDATE: Further evidence of the transformation of the United States into a fascist country can be seen in the spectacle of opposition to a so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (actually a few blocks away in a neighborhood shared with strip clubs). Only a few politicians have spoken up for the developers; most, including Barack Obama, at least leave open to question the wisdom of the project, while many have denounced it. Juan Cole has perhaps the most comprehensive reply.)

It has to be the strangest thing I’ve seen since I realized that Republican political strategy was not an electoral strategy and since I began to worry about a fascist future. Joe Barton made a spectacle of himself apologizing to BP for what he called “a $20 billion shakedown.” The money to be paid in, what are for BP, entirely affordable installments, is to go into an escrow account to at least partially cover damages from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Those damages will be immense. The entire Gulf region faces a wipe-out of its tourism and fishing industries, anyone able to travel to the Gulf coast faces the loss of a recreation opportunities, and the environmental damage is beyond reckoning.

It’s hard to imagine anyone defending BP against charges of putting profits before caution. And as near as I can tell, no one is, even with the implication that deregulation went too far. But the right-wing reaction to Obama’s having insisted that BP set $20 billion aside has been vicious.

It’s as if BP should be allowed to go bankrupt or to otherwise abscond with the money to pay those damages before they’re assessed. It’s as if the $20 billion figure is completely out of line (in fact, it may well be low and the Obama administration has been clear that the number doesn’t represent an upper limit to BP’s liability). It’s as if–I don’t know–right wingers have gone completely out of their gourds (as if they hadn’t already).

It’s positively hysterical. It is hysteria on behalf of a corporation and on behalf of an attitude toward corporations.

Given how financial institutions have seriously damaged the economy, how workers’ wages have stagnated or decreased, how people are being foreclosed out of their homes, and how BP’s defense is even lamer than that of the banks, no one in their right mind can seriously think that small businesses and everyone else who is suffering losses due to this fiasco are not entitled to compensation for their losses. Can they?

Right wing media personalities seem adamant that any possibility of justice should be at risk. And once again, I’m trying to understand.

If you’re in any kind of broadcast, advertising revenues are a concern. And if you’re a politician, you might be looking to lucrative alternative careers in private industry. And as I have repeatedly noted, elites are for all practical purposes indistinguishable anyway: their interests are effectively identical. So it’s understandable that the predominantly white, wealthy, and male elite that runs the country and dominates the airwaves might earnestly believe that BP is being shaken down.

But you’d think that if they cared about votes, they’d keep their mouths shut about it. It isn’t like BP is scoring high approval ratings for their handling of the mess. Gallup’s survey showed 16 percent approval.

Unless the elites aren’t seeking mass approval. Unless they’re just trying to keep their followers fired up for whatever evil they have in store.

Gonzalo Lira, who lived in Chile during the Pinochet years, sees in recent Supreme Court decisions the establishment of a fascist police state. Lira argues that the system of so-called justice now functions to protect the elite from any kind of dissent and from any kind of challenge to their actions. He points out that both the definition of a terrorist organization and what constitutes support for such an organization are now entirely arbitrary and at the discretion of the President. Joan McCarter reminds us that in this decision, the Court ruled against organizations providing advice on seeking nonviolent solutions.

As Sara Robinson put it,

And now we are. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for, it’s suddenly everywhere. It’s odd that I haven’t been asked for quite a while; but if you asked me today, I’d tell you that if we’re not there right now, we’ve certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot and are now looking for a space. Either way, our fascist American future now looms very large in the front windshield — and those of us who value American democracy need to understand how we got here, what’s changing now, and what’s at stake in the very near future if these people are allowed to win — or even hold their ground.

I no longer have to wonder if we have arrived in Sara Robinson’s parking space. And with that understanding, I need no longer wonder why right wingers seem not to care in the least about popular opinion.

Turning the “Tragedy of the Commons” on its head

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote a classic essay entitled the “Tragedy of the Commons” which he begins by arguing that as population grows, territory must be allocated in order to prevent its ruin, that it will otherwise be overrun; then that:

The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest,” so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers.

This, Hardin argues, is less of a problem when the population is small and nature can absorb the waste. “But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.”

Hardin eventually reaches a dilemma:

If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist “in the name of conscience,” what are we saying to him? . . . Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: 1. (intended communication) “If you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen”; 2. (the unintended communication) “If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.”

Hardin’s solution proceeds from an analogy:

The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank robbing. The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow Frankel’s lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.

The morality of bank robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say “Thou shalt not rob banks,” without providing for exceptions. But temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.

Thus, removing what Proudhon (in What is Property?) saw as our common birthright from the “commons” becomes a means of rationing its use and preventing catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. In Hardin’s words,

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. . . . We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

Hardin concludes that “the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.”

That Hardin extends his logic even to a necessity to restrain the freedom to reproduce, a problem I touch upon elsewhere in another context, is not my point here. Rather, I am drawn to this essay from Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., who wrote:

“Do something!” citizens shout to a government charged with protecting the environment in and around a Gulf of Mexico that is nobody’s private property. Yet the government, it seems, can’t do much of anything because the means of containing this unprecedented anomalous event are entirely in the hands of a private company. It was trusted to know what it was doing with complicated equipment that, it turns out, BP either didn’t understand very well or was willing to use recklessly.

But government is ill-equipped for the task; as Dionne observes, “we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task.” If we are to believe Hardin, placing the entire Gulf of Mexico in BP’s hands–let us not even begin to contemplate the complications which this might entail–in some sort of capitalist Libertarian wet (and now very oily) dream would ensure that BP would have some interest in protecting the Gulf against the catastrophe which has now occurred.

Or we might infer that the government process of regulating oil extraction withdraws the Gulf from the commons and, as Dionne suggests, the failure was in an emasculated government. But we must also consider what C. Wright Mills, who seems to have proceeded from his observations of the military-industrial complex and of a condition of permanent war, saw in 1958, that

In so far as the power elite is composed of men of similar origin and education, of similar career and style of life, their unity may be said to rest upon the fact that they are of similar social type, and to lead to the fact of their easy intermingling. . . . It achieves a more solid culmination in the fact of the interchangeability of positions between the three dominant institutional orders [the political, economic, and military].

Mills distinguished between three elites, but observing that they shared a common interest, he also pointed to their unity:

Their unity, however, does not rest solely upon psycholgical similarity and social intermingling, nor entirely upon the structural blending or commanding positions and common interests. At times it is the unity of a more explicit co-ordination.

As I observed in my introduction to a Robert Reich column (posted as a comment), in which Reich observed, “It’s not the purpose of the private sector to protect the public,”

There can be no meaningful separation between the economic and political elites because they are, for all practical purposes, the same people, which means that any expectation that government will protect citizens against the rapacity of big business is in effect the expectation that a fox can be relied upon to guard a hen house, as is illustrated even with the Obama administration’s regulation of oil wells, even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Dionne, Reich, and many others assume a possibility of good governance to impose a sufficiently high price on BP’s misbehavior as to deter it. And this assumes that government officials will be motivated to serve as a check on the private sector. But if anything is clear amidst the murky Gulf waters, it is that the Minerals Management Service relationship with oil companies was entirely too cozy, just as Mills might have predicted, back in 1958, long before Ronald Reagan was elected president, long before the deregulation fad that has proven so disastrous in so many ways.

So how, then, can the allocation of property ever act to prevent its misuse? How can a rationing of the commons avoid “total ruin?” How can a fiction that deprives us of our common birthright immunize us from the consequences of a thoroughly man-made disaster? In light of the Deepwater Horizon, it would seem perverse to do as Hardin seems to recommend, to reward oil companies with an even more direct interest.

The problem is more fundamental; it reaches into the paradigm by which we humans arrange our affairs. It is in the assumption that this planet and all its resources exist solely for our use, simply by virtue of our presence here upon this planet. It is in a hierarchy of humans over nature and of humans over the planet.

Such foolishness carries a cost. It is in hindsight that we see the folly of conducting drilling operations in the way we have. But one wonders if we will even have the luxury of hindsight to see how our attitudes toward the planet compound environmental disaster upon environmental disaster. Frank Fenner, who helped defeat smallpox, thinks we will be extinct within 100 years. No one, it appears, can refute him but with an unfounded hope that loses plausibility with the passing of every day.

A sociopathic antipathy to “drama”

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

In a recent mailing, Carolyn Baker, a historian and psychologist, noted that our society presently devalues drama–invoking, for instance, the moniker, “No Drama Obama,” and the disparaging of “drama queens.” Baker infers from this a “numbing” of emotion.

In short, we aren’t supposed to get angry even in the face of injustice, and we are not to expect even emotional support from our friends and relatives. There’s something of an inconsistency as Obama faces heavy criticism for a leadership style that fails to express appropriate emotion.

Psychologists and interpersonal communication scholars accept as fundamental that anger can be a defense mechanism. Appropriateness depends both on how it is expressed and how the audience interprets its expression. But our society’s repudiation of “drama” on general principle legitimates oppression and delegitimizes the oppressed.

The inconsistency appears to hinge on who the “victims” are. It is okay to wail about BP’s wanton destruction of the Gulf of Mexico because a large population faces the prospect of fouled beaches, ruined recreation, and eviscerated livelihoods. Likewise, it is okay to whine about government budget deficits because repayment may entail higher taxes for the vast majority who pay them in order to sustain expected services.

Iraq Deaths Estimator

But an illegal killing expedition against Iraqi and Afghan civilians producing over a million “excess” civilian deaths in Iraq alone (extrapolating from a peer-reviewed study in Lancet) attracts little condemnation. A widening and increasingly surreptitious crusade mostly against Islam attracts criticism only when it seems futile–in other words, because we aren’t winning.

Lest you think this is just about foreign “others,” our political response to 6.7 million long term unemployed is to refuse to pass even a stripped-down jobs bill. Deficit hawks could cite a Gallup survey in which concern about the deficit edged out concern about unemployment as a matter of “extreme” concern. Because bleating about unemployment apparently would be “drama.”

The numbing of our collective consciousness means we do little more than criticize discrimination against the unemployed in hiring. It seems to translate to collective inaction in the face of a wide perception that Obama’s economic policies are, at best, ineffective. It means we sustain a war on Islam, a religion which too many view monolithically, with over 1.57 billion adherents worldwide, even at the expense of urgent domestic needs.

It means, in short, that we prioritize killing people over taking care of people.

An Obama campaign promise massacre

If anyone still believes in Obama’s campaign promises and executive order for a more transparent government, they should read Glenn Greenwald’s excellent column on the case of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. I am accumulating background, but certainly not with Greenwald’s diligence. In fact, the Obama administration is proving particularly vicious in going after leakers.

It’s not just another broken campaign promise; this promise has been terminated with extreme prejudice. I quote from Greenwald’s column, including an excerpt from a chatlog between Manning, who purportedly “leak[ed] to WikiLeaks the now famous Apache Helicopter attack video, a yet-to-be-published video of a civilian-killing air attack in Afghanistan, and ‘hundreds of thousands of classified State Department records.'” and Adrian Lamo, who seems to have betrayed him to the authorities, here:

And he explained why the thought of selling this classified information he was leaking to a foreign power never entered his mind:

Manning: i mean what if i were someone more malicious- i could’ve sold to russia or china, and made bank?

Lamo: why didn’t you?

Manning: because it’s public data

Lamo: i mean, the cables

Manning: it belongs in the public domain -information should be free – it belongs in the public domain – because another state would just take advantage of the information… try and get some edge – if its out in the open… it should be a public good.

That’s a whistleblower in the purest form: discovering government secrets of criminal and corrupt acts and then publicizing them to the world not for profit, not to give other nations an edge, but to trigger “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” That’s the person that Adrian Lamo informed on and risked sending to prison for an extremely long time.

Making Lamo’s conduct even worse is that it appears he reported Manning for no reason other than a desire for some trivial media attention. Jacob Appelbaum, a well-known hacker of the Tor Project who has known Lamo for years, said that Lamo’s “only concern” has always been “getting publicity for Adrian.” Indeed, Lamo’s modus operandi as a hacker was primitive hacking aimed at high-profile companies that he’d then use Poulsen to publicize. As Appelbaum put it: “if this situation really fell into Adrian’s lap, his first and only thought would have been: how can I turn this to my advantage? He basically destroyed a 22-year-old’s life in order to get his name mentioned on the blog.”

The video which lies at the beginning of this saga is on YouTube, here:

And the text of Obama’s executive order on transparency:

Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies

SUBJECT:      Transparency and Open Government

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Government should be transparent.  Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.  Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.

Government should be collaborative.  Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperateamong themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.  Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.

I direct the Chief Technology Officer, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Administrator of General Services, to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive, to be issued by the Director of OMB, that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum. The independent agencies should comply with the Open Government Directive.

This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

This memorandum shall be published in the Federal Register.


A kid can’t have fun anymore

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

To begin this entry, I need to explain a little about Sausalito, at least as I encountered it as a cab driver in the late 1990s. It is a picturesque and wealthy–the money here seems a little older and the people seem a little mellower than in the rest of Marin County–town built on the east side of the Marin Headlands, the hills at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The tourist areas, consisting mostly of restaurants and small shops, are mostly along a flat strip that hugs the San Francisco Bay. There are houseboats towards the north end of town, but a lot of people live on steep hillsides along very narrow streets.

For the most part, I enjoyed driving cab there, and during tourist season, the money was pretty good. Off-season, it was a losing deal, with mostly only very short trips taking people home from bars. As I watched my earnings take a nosedive, I hustled my tail through the process of becoming a San Francisco cab driver. I think I only drove in Sausalito for about four months.

But one day I was driving up a hill to pick up a fare and I turned onto a street, surprising a female jogger who was pushing her baby carriage (of the type with big wheels that jogging parents often use) down the middle of the street. I didn’t hit her–this isn’t that kind of a story–but the look she gave me was unforgettable. I suppose she expected me to drive on the sidewalk to avoid her–except I don’t think there was one. Or perhaps a working class cab driver should not sully the streets with a cab that one of her neighbors had called.

But the way I interpreted the episode was of a misdirected over-protectiveness towards her child. To be safe, she shouldn’t have been in the street at all. She might at least have been running along the side of the street rather than right down the middle. But instead, I was the threat and I was in the wrong.

I also interpreted her over-protectiveness as a consequence of delayed maternity. As our society moves–or attempts to move–towards greater gender equality, many women are deferring having children to advance their careers. The notion of a biological clock may be a myth, but one might infer from the fuss over fertility treatments that a certain urgency arises as a woman who wants children gets older. And the children she does bear may represent her last chance at fertility.

Parents should be protective of their children. But if the baby you’ve got is your only chance at having one, I imagine you might be a little more protective.

And in the wake of that encounter, I wondered what the consequences of that over-protectiveness would be for the children.

At the other end of the spectrum is the saga of 16-year old Abby Sunderland sailing across the Indian Ocean. As Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald renders it,

And now, a rebuttal from inside the cotton-wool tunnel.

That, according to Laurence Sunderland, is the safe, heavily padded place where critics of him, his wife Marianne and their 16-year-old daughter Abby live, cushioned from life’s dangers and risks. If the names sound familiar, there’s a reason. Abby Sunderland is the California girl whose attempt to become the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe ended in near tragedy when her boat became crippled by storms in the Indian Ocean. Laurence and Marianne are the parents who let her go.

The girl was found and rescued last week, but her brush with disaster has earned her folks international reproach.

Pitts, whom I think is an awfully good writer and whom I think is often right, adds to the criticism:

There was no compelling reason for Abby’s voyage. She was hardly Ferdinand Magellan seeking a western route to the Spice Islands. Rather, she was a teenager from Thousand Oaks whose parents allowed her to risk her life in search of a dubious and ultimately, meaningless, record.

The effort to rescue her involved the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, a search plane and a French fishing boat. According to Australian newspapers, this will cost taxpayers there hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the risk for the sailors who saved Abby; the French captain fell into the ocean and had to be rescued himself.

All that, and for what?

Well, it will surprise no one to hear the Sunderlands were shopping a reality show. Laurence claims he pulled out of Adventures in Sunderland before Abby sailed, when it became clear he and the producers had dissimilar visions. He wanted an inspirational program celebrating a family of daredevils and risk-takers; they wanted to chronicle what they saw as a family sending a daughter off to certain death.

I suppose in the wake of the balloon boy hoax, we are indeed supposed to all be as cynical as Pitts. But there was a day when kids could take risks, sometimes hurt themselves, and sometimes do great things; a day when we would celebrate their accomplishments rather than smear their parents as money-grubbing publicity seekers.

And I think it is a sign that money has truly perverted our society when we can’t do that anymore.

The dude’s on drugs. He has to be.

I remember listening to Art Tyde at the “all hands” meetings at Linuxcare during the dot-com boom and thinking to myself, this man believes his own hype.

That’s a harsh assessment. Tyde is one of the few capitalists out there whom I think truly means well. And my job at Linuxcare, a company he has recently brought back from the dead with yet another business plan, remains the best I’ve ever had. My time there was the only time in my life when I felt I was actually earning a living.

Of course, it didn’t last. Linuxcare–along with an awful lot of companies, good and bad–was forced to retrench when it seemed that all the venture capitalists suddenly realized that they had funded a bunch of companies without sensible business plans, and swiftly folded their checkbooks. Tyde, along with Dave Sifry and Dave LaDuke, had founded a company with a genuinely good idea, but trusted the venture capitalists when they offered to bring in “professional management.”

A lot of Silicon Valley folks will never, ever, ever trust venture capitalists again because a lot of good companies–as well as some bad ones–went down the toilet in the dot-com crash, all with much the same story of profligate spending by management teams that marketed vaporware, hyping company valuations up to make killings in IPOs.

It was a bit like a Ponzi scheme, or perhaps it actually was one. A few people got into the dot-com business early, produced real products, went through IPOs, and got rich. A few companies–I’m thinking of Yahoo!–produced something (in Yahoo!’s case, a search engine that few people even remember) that has not stood the test of time; many of these companies have been bought out or are still struggling, but those who got involved with them early still did well. And no doubt, a few companies never did actually produce anything, IPOed, and still made fantastic returns for their investors.

It isn’t hard to see the venture capital management team at Linuxcare as aiming for the latter category. And I think a lot of my fellow former employees, most of whom are a lot more bitter, would say something similar.

I’ve been in contact with Tyde a couple times since my Linuxcare days. I’m pretty sure Sifry is still involved in open source software work though I haven’t heard from him. Tyde says he learned some lessons from the Linuxcare experience and I wouldn’t doubt that Sifry has too. Certainly other people I’ve spoken to in Silicon Valley have learned from their dot-com crash experiences.

It’s a shame that Obama hasn’t.

If we had all been really smart, we might have recognized it when Obama’s campaign was about “hope” and about “change,” while the post-nomination-clinch rhetoric beelined to “more of the same.” But as hard as the dot-com crash was–I haven’t found a decent job that actually paid anything since–at least it wasn’t an entire country of over 300 million people at stake.

Gallup’s survey puts underemployment at 18.8 percent. That’s down a bit from when I wrote last month that “the Obama administration seems to view a shortage of jobs as a public relations problem rather than a situation to be dealt with in any meaningful way and many economists who simply don’t want to face reality enable him.” But for all the administration hype, it is now all but certain we’re heading into the second dip of a double-dip recession. And even Obama seems to recognize this as he pleas, apparently in vain, for a paltry $50 billion in aid for state and local governments whose revenue sources have been hard hit by the recession, “saying the money is needed to avoid ‘massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters’ and to support the still-fragile economic recovery.”

More skepticism appeared when he announced a troop “surge” in Afghanistan, where the news just keeps getting worse. Beset with unending bad news, it appears as if someone got James Risen at the New York Times to write a glowing report of Afghanistan’s minerals prospects–as if that would justify the crimes the U.S. has committed there–that’s actually old news, as David Dayen at Firedoglake, Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy, and John Laumer at Treehugger have all noted. So I guess Obama sees the war in Afghanistan as a PR problem as well.

But here’s how Obama really reminds me of those “all hands” meetings at Linuxcare: On his fourth trip to the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, where the news also just keeps on getting worse, Obama promised that “things are going to return to normal. … I am confident that we’re going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before.”

The Associated Press reporter was unimpressed:

That pledge was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s promise to rebuild the region “even better and stronger” than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush could not make good on that promise, and Obama did not spell out how he would fulfill his.

I don’t know what drugs Obama is on. But if he even cares about retaining a Democratic Party majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, he needs to share.

The real reason to fear SmartMeters: Privacy

So I guess “SmartMeters” are coming. Not without protest in my part of the world. Here, we’re worried about health problems, but in other parts of the state, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to acknowledge problems with accuracy.

In fact, the health risk probably is less than that of using a cell phone. As PG&E spokesperson Paul Moreno points out, the distance between a SmartMeter and a person’s head is likely to be far greater than with a cell phone. Plus, assuming SmartMeters function as we are being told, the data burst should be far briefer than most cell phone conversations.

I’m not seeing any reason for deception on these points; they really can do anything they need to with relatively low power. So I assume that health problems are minimal and that accuracy issues can be fixed. I’m worried about privacy. According to PG&E,

The solid-state digital SmartMeter™ electric meter records hourly meter reads and periodically transmits the reads via a dedicated radio frequency (RF) network back to PG&E. Each SmartMeter™ electric meter is equipped with a network radio, which transmits meter data to a electric network access point (pictured below). The system uses RF mesh technology, which allows meters and other sensing devices to securely route data via nearby meters and relay devices, creating a “mesh” of network coverage. The system supports two-way communication between the meter and PG&E. SmartMeter™ electric meters can be upgraded remotely, providing the ability to implement future innovations easily and securely.

SmartMeter™The electric network access point collects meter data from nearby electric meters and periodically transfers this data to PG&E via a secure cellular network. Each RF mesh-enabled device (meters, relays) is connected to several other mesh-enabled devices, which function as signal repeaters, relaying the data to an access point. The access point device aggregates, encrypts, and sends the data back to PG&E over a secure commercial third-party network. The resulting RF mesh network can span large distances and reliably transmit data over rough or difficult terrain. If a meter or other transmitter drops out of the network, its neighbors find another route. The mesh continually optimizes routing to ensure information is passed from its source to its destination as quickly and efficiently as possible.

That’s a good basic description of electric meters. But important details are missing. And there are significant differences from gas meters:

The SmartMeter™ gas system uses point-to-point RF technology to transmit gas usage data from SmartMeter™ gas modules back to PG&E over a dedicated, secure wireless network. Due to the simpler data requirements of the gas system, the SmartMeter™ gas system supports only one-way communication from customers to PG&E. PG&E attaches the SmartMeter™ gas module to the traditional gas meter. This module is outfitted with a radio frequency (RF) transmitter. The module records daily meter reads and then uses an RF signal to transmit the reads to a data collector unit (see below) in the vicinity.

They say that the data requirements for gas are “simpler” than those for electricity. Why? And why won’t gas meters require software upgrades like the electric meters?

And why are we to applaud that meter readers will presumably be laid off? PG&E’s argument boils down to customers being able to log into a web site and track their hourly electric usage and daily gas usage–suggesting that this is how often data is collected–to take advantage of discounts for off peak usage.

That seems a bit odd. There’s no great mystery when peak electric usage occurs. The Consumer Energy Education Group (which apparently focuses on Delaware, not California) says on their web site that, “In the U.S., this occurs in the afternoon, especially during the summer months when the air conditioning load is high.” Gee. That’s pretty much what I thought I’d heard before.

PG&E could provide specific peak hour and off-peak hour pricing information on its web site; customers who were so inclined could react accordingly, and the data could be collected once a month–for a monthly billing–rather than once an hour (for electric) or once a day (for gas). It’s the relatively constant data collection that catches my attention.

PG&E says that, “in the future,” you can be “notified by email, text message or phone when your electric use is moving toward a higher-cost tier;” and that the company will “be able to pinpoint power outages and restore your power faster.” In addition, they’ll “be able to resolve service problems more easily and, in many cases, without a visit to your home or business.” The last of these “benefits” sounds far too vague to be of any meaning. The ability to “pinpoint power outages” can be accomplished principally at the network access point level, which could then, where necessary, ping meters to see which ones had power to respond–hourly reporting is simply not particularly useful to this end. And that these benefits are, for now, vaporware suggests that they aren’t the reason for this frequency of reporting in the first place.

I’m presently reading a book by Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. It’s old, originally published in French in 1954, and in English in 1964. This is thinking that’s fundamentally older than I am. And I think it’s on the edge of being too deterministic. But he’s concerned about how technology has taken over civilization, that the ability to do things makes it compulsory to do them.

For instance, Ellul writes of the atomic bomb,

It was, then, necessary to pass through the period of research which culminated in the bomb before proceeding to its normal sequel, atomic motive power. The atomic-bomb period is a transitory, but unfortunately necessary, stage in the general evolution of this technique. In the interim period represented by the bomb, the possessor, finding himself with so powerful an instrument, is led to use it. Why? Because everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as it is available, without distinction of good or evil. This is the principal law of our age. We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution. (p. 99)

While there is something to be said for the fact that we now possess and retain even more powerful nuclear weapons, despite the fact there is no conceivable circumstance in which we would actually use them, and despite the fact that their only use is inherently criminal, it is also the case that we have not used them since the end of World War II. Their present function as “deterrence” is grossly inefficient and certainly not a rationale of technique. But we keep these weapons nonetheless and there are powerful forces within the defense and political establishments–not to mention those segments of the economic establishment which benefit from their production–which resist giving them up.

The example of nuclear weapons suggests that Ellul overstates the matter when he suggests that any available technology must be used. But we can also see that any capability will not lightly be abandoned. Even if SmartMeters perform precisely as advertised and offer no additional capabilities, I cannot help but be concerned by the accumulation of ability to collect data on a much more immediate basis than the application actually requires.

But long before Total Information Awareness, Ellul also wrote this:

The police must be independent if they are to become efficient. They must form a closed, autonomous organization in order to operate by the most direct and efficient means and not be shackled by subsidiary considerations. And in this autonomy, they must be self-confident in respect to the law. It matters little whether police action is legal, if it is efficient. The rules obeyed by a technical organization are no longer rules of justice or injustice. They are “laws” in a purely technical sense. As far as the police are concerned, the highest stage is reached when the legislature legalizes their independence of the legislature itself and recognizes the primacy of technical laws. (p. 133)

When I read this, I am thinking not of the local police force–though they’re quite dangerous enough–but of intelligence agencies increasingly tasked with domestic spying duties that Obama has done nothing even to curtail, let alone to abolish. And while the accumulation of data in the successors to the Total Information Awareness program is far from efficient, its aim is nonetheless the accumulation of every possible piece of data about everyone. Ellul, again:

To be sure of apprehending criminals, it is necessary that everyone be supervised. It is necessary to know exactly what every citizen is up to, to know his relations, his amusements, etc. And the state is increasingly in a position to know these things. (p. 100)

Joe Conason, in It Can Happen Here, describes present efforts:

The truly mind-boggling objective of these programs is to compile a database that includes everything about everyone–and to invent algorithms that can trace patterns to identify criminals and terrorists within the abstract universe of bits and bytes.

“Mind-boggling” is not the term I would choose. I would choose, instead, “alarming.” This is alarming because there is simply no piece of data that cannot be misinterpreted, some way, somehow. This is a critical problem for quantitative research that qualitative research attempts to mitigate. It is an even larger problem for those who are professionally paranoid, mining (this is itself a suspect methodology) massive quantities of inherently quantitative data for patterns which they may use to rationalize any action against anyone. Conason continues:

If such an ambitious concept seems familiar, that could be due to its close resemblance to the spooky-sounding Total Information Awareness project, which crashed and burned (or at least went into hiding) under intense publicity in late 2002. Housed in the Pentagon’s ultra-high-tech Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, the TIA program was directed by John Poindexter, the retired navy admiral, former national security adviser to President Reagan, and Iran-Contra criminal defendant. . . .

What Poindexter was doing for the country was aptly symbolized by his project’s symbol, an occult pyramid topped by an all-seeing eye, gazing upon a globe — and its motto, “Knowledge is power.” His goal was to create a gigantic matrix to trace enemies of the state by amassing and analyzing every last speck of data in cyberspace, from electronic tolls to Orbitz tickets to motel charges and far more. When a Pentagon bureaucrat like Poindexter says “everything,” he means literally every income tax return, every medical record, every telephone bill, every credit report, every bank-card swipe, every movie ticket, every book, and everything else that isn’t paid for in cash, plus every e-mail sent by anybody anywhere. . . .

This overweening scheme raised alarms from critics left to right, and none louder than William Safire, the old libertarian Republican who warned in the New York Times that Poindexter would soon exercise unprecedented power to invade every citizen’s privacy. Actually, Poindexter and his colleagues were developing a prototype system that was not quite ready to mount the final Orwellian invasion of everyone’s personal space. But TIA certainly aimed to breach all boundaries between commercial and governmental information systems, wiping out the distinction between public and private to an extent that was difficult to imagine. (pp. 188-190)

Congress killed TIA but Conason writes that “the same work, performed by the same consultants and scientists, was simply moved to another agency–the Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), based at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the headquarters of the NSA.” It was now called “Basketball.” And TIA was only the best known such effort.

In short, we can assume that every piece of data collected by any corporation in the United States may well wind up in the National Security Agency’s computers. PG&E’s SmartMeters are probably not a particularly egregious example. But I can’t tell you exactly what’s inside those boxes. And I don’t know how you can trust anyone to tell you. Nor can I tell you that their capabilities won’t be augmented in some invasive way at some future date.

When it comes to health concerns, I probably won’t hang out for long periods of time in the corner of the house nearest the meter. But a computerized box attached to my house reporting to the NSA at an excessive rate makes me distinctly nervous. I’d really rather my meter reader kept her job.

The “Bee”

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

The realization that our present economic system relies on overconsumption of overproduction, and further, that this overproduction perverts far too much of our planet into toxicity opens the door to an understanding that nothing like present productivity levels are in fact required. Jacques Ellul, in The Technological Society, also recalls how work could be subverted to social activity–with the latter being paramount:

Even in activities we consider technical, it was not always that aspect which was uppermost. In the achievement of a small economic goal, for example, the technical effort became secondary to the pleasure of gathering together. “Formerly, when a New England family convoked a ‘bee’ (that is, a meeting for working in common), it was for all concerned one of the most pleasurable times of the year. The work was scarcely more than a pretext for coming together.” The activity of sustaining social relations and human contacts predominated over the technical scheme of things and the obligation to work, which were secondary causes. (p. 65)

Neil Postman in Technopoly and Ellul both warn against society having developed to a condition where technique becomes an end rather than a means to an end. Scott Sernau, in Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, adds

that the men and women of hunting and gathering bands may live well. They work less than you or I do, maybe only about 20 hours per week (Sahlins 1972). In part this is because there is only so much they can do. Their lives are tied to the rhythms of nature, and so they must wait for the returning herds or the ripening fruits. While they wait, they joke and tell stories, they mend their simple tools and temporary dwellings, they play with their children, and, it seems, they often give some energy to flirting and lovemaking. Their diets are often healthier than those of most of the world’s peasants; in fact, they are quite similar to the diverse, high-fiber, organic diets based on fresh fruits and vegetables supplemented with a little lean meat that nutritionists encourage for the rest of us. (p. 73)

In the juxtaposition of these distinct understandings comes a recognition that the promise of technology, of easier, more prosperous lives of greater leisure has somehow been lost. We have more gadgets that do more things than ever before, but I will never forget as a cab driver in San Francisco, seeing people who rose early in the morning and worked late into the evenings, people who may have acquired a material standard of living, but whom I thought were doomed to burn out. Capitalism promised–and may even have occasionally delivered–prosperity and more free time for those who worked hard, but I saw also the broken bodies of discarded people on 6th Street whom capitalism spat out.

If overproduction is indeed overproduction, then rather than enslaving ourselves to production, we should instead collect on the promise of technology, so like Sernau’s “cavemen” with their putatively “nasty, brutish, and short” lives, we might “joke and tell stories, . . . play with [our] children, and . . . give some energy to flirting and lovemaking.” With such a wretched fate, it just might be that we would save our planet and ourselves in the process.