Guess what? US ‘democracy’ won’t cure rising inequality

April 21st, 2014 [link]

Well, well. Hot on the heels of the English translation of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus comes this report of a new study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page from Princeton. Excerpt:

Money buys power.

That’s the bottom line of a new study from Princeton University political scientist Martin Gilens, who looked at 1,779 U.S. government policy decisions between 1981 and 2002. Gilens found that the preferences of the median earner had no impact on whether policies are adopted — but that politicians march in lockstep with what the top earners wanted.

You may think you’ve heard that conclusion before, but Gilens’s approach is unique, and that makes his findings all the more important. Gilens didn’t take one theory of who has political influence and test it with data, as does almost all of the research on this topic. He tested the power of the rich, middle class, and interest groups simultaneously, allowing for any theory to win or lose. That is new.

And here’s the real danger of what Gilens finds: It means that the U.S. political system is set to transform the dramatic rise of income inequality into entrenched differences in political power — and there’s very little the middle class can do to stop it from happening.

There is, in other words, an inequality feedback loop built into the U.S. political system — and America may be spiraling into it. A policy that enriches what Gilens calls the “economic elite” will command its support. Their support, Gilens shows, means that the political system is likely to make it happen. And the ever wealthier become the ever-more powerful. Policies that undermine the elite become ever more difficult to pass as economic inequality buys political obedience.

Book Review: ‘The People’s Platform’

April 21st, 2014 [link]

My Observer review of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions.

The launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993 transformed the internet into a mainstream medium and brought the corporate world online, so from then on the die was cast. What happened is that the two universes effectively merged, so we now live in a strange amalgam of meat- and cyberspace in which the elements of each run riot. A virtual space that once had no crime and no surveillance has become one with an abundance of each; and the ”real” world has been destabilised by the astonishing power and properties of networks.

Yet public understanding of the implications of this convergence lags some way behind the emerging reality, which is why we need books like this. Astra Taylor is a talented documentary-maker who was dismayed by the way her work was appropriated and pirated online. But instead of fuming silently in her studio, she set out to seek an understanding of the paradoxical world that the merging of cyberspace and meatspace has produced. What she finds is a world which is, on the one hand, hooked on an evangelical narrative about the liberating, empowering, enlightening, democratising power of information technology while, on the other, being increasingly dominated and controlled by the corporations that have effectively captured the technology.

The big question about the net was always whether it would be as revolutionary as its early evangelists believed. Would it really lead to the overthrow of the old, established order? We are now beginning to see that the answer is: no. We were intoxicated by the exuberance of our own evangelism. “From a certain angle,” writes Taylor, “the emerging order looks suspiciously like the old one.” In fact, she concludes, “Wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume and connect. The companies that provide these and related services are quickly becoming the Disneys of the digital world – monoliths hungry for quarterly profits, answerable to their shareholders not us, their users, and more influential, more ubiquitous, and more insinuated into the fabric of our everyday lives than Mickey Mouse ever was. As such they pose a whole new set of challenges to the health of our culture.”

Innocents abroad

April 20th, 2014 [link]

“An Ambassador”, says the old joke, “is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country”. The only US Ambassador I’ve met was a Californian automobile salesman. (Well, he owned a whole string of dealerships, and I guessed owed his position not to mastery of statecraft but to the size of his campaign contributions.) It was during the Iraq war and he gave a public lecture which never once mentioned the war. And then I forgot all about him, until I came on this piece in Politico by James Bruno arguing that one reason the Kremlin is running rings round the US in Europe is the relative incompetence of American ambassadors compared to their Russian counterparts.

Bruno examines the diplomatic representation of the two countries in three critical European capitals: Berlin, Oslo and Budapest.

Berlin

The Russian ambassador to Germany, Vladimir Grinin, who joined the diplomatic service in 1971, has served in Germany in multiple tours totaling 17 years, in addition to four years in Austria as ambassador. He is fluent in German and English. He has held a variety of posts in the Russian Foreign Ministry concentrating on European affairs. Berlin is his fourth ambassadorship.

The U.S. ambassador to Germany, John B. Emerson, has seven months of diplomatic service (since his arrival in Berlin) and speaks no German. A business and entertainment lawyer, Emerson has campaigned for Democrats ranging from Gary Hart to Bill Clinton. He bundled $2,961,800 for Barack Obama’s campaigns.

Oslo

Vyacheslav Pavlovskiy has been Moscow’s envoy in Oslo since 2010. A MGIMO graduate and 36-year diplomatic veteran, he speaks three foreign languages.

President Obama’s nominee as ambassador to Norway, hotel magnate George Tsunis, bundled $988,550 for Obama’s 2012 campaign. He so botched his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in February with displays of ignorance about the country to which he is to be posted that Norway’s media went ballistic and he became a laughingstock domestically. He is yet to be confirmed.

Budapest

Russian envoy Alexander Tolkach, a 39-year Foreign Ministry veteran and MGIMO alumnus, is on his second ambassadorship; he speaks three foreign languages.

Colleen Bell, a producer of a popular TV soap opera with no professional foreign affairs background, snagged the nomination of U.S. ambassador to Hungary with $2,191,835 in bundled donations to President Obama. She stumbled nearly as badly as Tsunis before her Senate hearing with her incoherent, rambling responses to basic questions on U.S.-Hungarian relations. She also awaits Senate confirmation.

The wit and wisdom of Vladimir Putin

April 20th, 2014 [link]

“There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.”

President Putin quoted in an article by the Russian muckraking journalist Artyom Borovik who died in 2000 in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident days after producing a scathing article about an ascendant Russian politician, one Vladimir Putin, who was about to become president.

Source

How to Save Ukraine

April 20th, 2014 [link]

Keith Darden has really good piece in Foreign Affairs arguing that

inattention to Ukraine’s internal demons reflects a dangerous misreading of current events; the struggle between Russia and the West has been a catalyst, but not a cause. The protagonists in this conflict are subnational regions. The EU association process, and especially the protests, repression, and revolution that followed, activated very deep and long-standing divisions between them. Unless Kiev deals with its regions and installs a more legitimate, decentralized government, Ukraine will not be won by the East or the West. It will be torn apart. 

Since the problem is an internal Ukrainian problem (and remains so, despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops on the country’s borders, and the seizure of city administrations throughout eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian groups), the solution will also be Ukrainian. The country might not be able to fix its centuries-old divides, but it must finally craft institutions to accommodate them. 

Later on in the piece he documents the extent to which regional rivalries threaten to wreck the country — and provide excuses for Russian intervention — unless they are addressed creatively by the regime in Kiev.

Why Facebook and Google are buying into drones

April 20th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column.

Back in the bad old days of the cold war, one of the most revered branches of the inexact sciences was Kremlinology. In the west, newspapers, thinktanks and governments retained specialists whose job was to scrutinise every scrap of evidence, gossip and rumour emanating from Moscow in the hope that it would provide some inkling of what the Soviet leadership was up to. Until recently, this particular specialism had apparently gone into terminal decline, but events in Ukraine have led to its urgent reinstatement.

The commercial equivalent of Kremlinology is Google- and Facebook-watching. Although superficially more open than the Putin regime, both organisations are pathologically secretive about their long-term aspirations and strategies. So those of us engaged in this strange spectator-sport are driven to reading stock-market analysts’ reports and other ephemera, which is the technological equivalent of consulting the entrails of recently beheaded chickens.

It’s grisly work but someone has to do it, so let us examine what little we know and see if we can make any sense of it…

LATER: Seb Schmoller, struck by my puzzlement about why Facebook had bought Oculus Rift, sent me a link to an interesting blog post by Donald Clark, who has experience of using Oculus kit.

I’ve played around with the Oculus for some time now – played games, roared around several roller-coasters, had my head chopped off by a guillotine, walked around on the floor of the ocean looking up at a whale and shark, floated around the International Space Station using my rocket pack.
Why do I think it matters? It’s possible, just possible, that this device, or one like it, will change the world we know forever. It will certainly revolutionise the world of entertainment. Flat screen TVs have got as big and sharp as they can get. It is clear that most people do want that big, panoramic experience but there’s a limit with 2D. Climb into that screen, which is what the Oculus allows you to do and you can look around, upwards, over your shoulder. You can them move around, do things and things can be done to you. It’s mind blowing.

The problem that Oculus has is getting to market quickly. Kickstarter was fine, for starting. Sony is right on their shoulder with project Morpheus. With this money they can accelerate R&D, have a massive marketing push and keep the price right…

His conclusion:

This is not only a ‘game’ changer, it’s an experience changer. It will change the way we spend our time, expand our experience and acquire skills. I’ve seen the effect it has with children, teenagers, adults and pensioners. It’s an experience, even at low resolution that can change your life, as you know, when you’ve tried it that it’s coming and when it comes it will be all-embracing. Facebook already has the world at its feet with 1.5 billion users, it now has the world on its head.

Translation: maybe the acquisition make more sense than I though.

Belle Epoque 2.0

April 19th, 2014 [link]

Terrific conversation between Bill Moyers and Paul Krugman about Thomas Piketty’s amazing book.

Making sense of Snowden

April 19th, 2014 [link]

This is a fantastic example of how to conduct an academic discussion of a really contentious subject. It brings together academics and NSA people to talk calmly about what’s happened and what it means. The participants are Yochai Benkler, Bruce Schneier, and Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center and John DeLong and Anne Neuberger of the National Security Agency. The conversation is expertly moderated by the Berkman Faculty Director Terry Fisher.

It runs for 90 minutes, but is really worth it. So book some time off and watch.

Some thoughts triggered by it, in no particular order…

  1. Tempting thought it might be, I see little point in demonising the agencies (NSA/GCHQ). Most of the people who work in them are conscientious officials engaged on a mission which they believe to be important and necessary. One interesting aspect of the Snowden revelations is that they contain few, if any, horror stories of “bad apples” or corrupt officials abusing their powers. This doesn’t mean that such scandals don’t exist, but my hunch is that this is very different from, say, what went on in MI5 and the CIA during the Kennedy/Nixon/Reagan eras.
  2. The discussion so far has focussed too much on the details or the surveillance programs, and not enough on what the existence of such programs means for society and democracy.
  3. ‘Oversight’ has been interpreted as checking that the agencies strictly adhere to the rules that have been set for them by legislation and executive order. It seems clear already that much of this oversight has been inadequate and flawed. But there has been very little discussion of democratic oversight of the rule-making process itself. It is important, of course, to ensure that rules set by Parliament or Congress are being obeyed at the execution level. But what is equally important – and thus far under-discussed – is whether the rules that have been created by politicians are themselves wise, effective and proportionate. There is little comfort to be derived from government assurances that everything done by NSA/GCHQ is “lawful” if the laws themselves are flawed.
  4. There is an important difference between espionage and bulk surveillance: the former is directed or targeted; the latter is generalised and indiscriminate.
  5. In a way, the agencies were set an impossible task by politicians in the aftermath of 9/11. “Never again” was both the letter and the spirit of the injunction. Societies must never again be vulnerable to the terrible things that terrorists might dream up and conspire about. Charged with this terrible responsibility the agencies attempted to forewarn against any conceivable threat, and the only way they could invent to do that involved the kind of comprehensive surveillance that Snowden reveals. What we don’t know – yet – is whether the agencies were actually doing this kind of surveillance before 9/11, in which case there would be some further awkward questions to be asked.
  6. The “war on terror” proved to be a really pernicious ploy. A state of war implies an existential threat to the nation, which justifies and legitimates very drastic measures. Between 1939 and 1945, for example, Britain was effectively a totalitarian state, and all kinds of civil liberties were drastically curtailed and infringed; but the citizenry grudgingly or willingly accepted these conditions because they understood the existential threat. But the “war on terror” is not a war in that sense; it’s merely a rhetorical device. it did, however provide ideological – and in some cases legal – cover for massive extensions of intrusive surveillance.
  7. Secrecy is always a tricky concept for democracies Because, on the one hand, democracy requires openness and publicity (to ensure that citizens can give their consent to what is being done in their name by state actors); but at the same time, democracies may legitimately need to engage in some activities which have to be kept secret. In some cases, secrecy is legitimate: in 1963, for example, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved by President Kennedy’s decision to offer the prospect of withdrawal of American missiles based in Turkey in return for a Soviet decision to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. This offer was kept secret from the American public for the very good reason that if it had been made public then it might have undermined congressional and public support for the president’s handling of the crisis.
  8. Democracies therefore are always trying to strike a balance between openness and secrecy. This can be a very hard balance to strike, so not surprisingly democracies tend to fudge the issue by offering to lift the veil of secrecy just far enough to provide a semblance of accountability. One of the things we have learned from the Snowdon affair is how threadbare this semblance is. What we have, as one shrewd commentator observed, is not real oversight but “oversight theatre”.
  9. A useful way to conceptualise the problem is to imagine a horizontal line. Activities above the line – for example legislative rule-making – take place in public. This is where policy is formed. Below the line is the area of policy execution by the agencies, and is hidden from the public.
  10. It would be naive to assume that the agencies confine themselves just to execution. They may sometimes be active above the line – for example in framing legislation which meets their needs but which is couched in terms that conceal from an ignorant public and a complacent or incompetent legislature the real import of the legislation. This process has been especially visible since 9/11. In that context, it’s interesting that the legislator who co-authored the Patriot Act has publicly declared his dismay at discovering (pace Snowden) what his statute has supposedly authorised. And in Britain it’s clear that directors of security organisations can play an important role in framing legislation.
  11. In Britain there is a deeply-ingrained tradition of political deference to the security services. This could be because Britain is a society that is more hierarchical and deferential than most. Or it could be that sentiment rules: GCHQ, for example, is seen as the spiritual heir of the wartime Bletchley Park codebreakers, and thus rides on their heroic coat-tails. Whatever the explanation, there are suspicions that budgetary and other proposals from senior security officials receive more favourable treatment in Whitehall than do comparable demands from “civilian” departments. One former senior member of the Blair government told me that in all his time in the Cabinet he could not recall a single instance in which a request from MI5/MI6/GCHQ was turned down by Tony Blair.
  12. Politicians in most Western democracies – including the United States and United Kingdom – are astonishingly ignorant about the capabilities and potential of computing and communication technologies. The proposition that such politicians might be capable of maintaining effective ‘oversight’ of technologically-adept agencies is implausible.
  13. Allied to politicians’ technological ignorance is the fact that “hacker culture” is an entirely alien world to them. This is important in considering the possibility of “mission creep” by surveillance agencies which are staffed by large numbers of talented software engineers. The Snowdon revelations include a few examples of what programmers call “cool hacks” which are indicative of technological exuberance and associated mission creep.
  14. Even if we except that the NSA has strictly adhered to the rules laid down by Congress, there is the problem that some of the activities revealed by Snowdon are nowhere mentioned in the rules. Congress, for example, did not mandate that the RSA encryption which supposedly secures the bulk of the commerce transactions on the open Internet should be covertly compromised by the agency. Nor did Congress mandate that the NSA should approach Microsoft after it acquired Skype with the demand/request that the technology should be modified in order to facilitate surveillance of VoIP communications.
  15. One of the most perplexing aspects of the whole surveillance question is why citizens of some of the most-surveilled societies seem relatively relaxed about it. There are, of course, cultural differences at work here – Germans, for example, seem to much more concerned about the Snowdon revelations than are Britons.
  16. The Snowdon revelations demonstrate the extent to which what one might call the National Surveillance State is a public-private enterprise. In a sense the state has covertly outsourced some of the surveillance to major Internet companies and telecommunications organisations. This is hardly surprising given that the core business of both the NSA/GCHQ and the Internet giants (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft) is intensive, detailed, comprehensive surveillance. The only real difference is that the companies claim it is being done with the consent of their users – as registered by their acceptance of the terms and conditions imposed by corporate EULAs (End User Licence Agreements).
  17. One strange aspect of the whole business is the way the US government appeared unaware to the threat that exposure of NSA activities would pose to the country’s big technology companies. It’s inconceivable that policy makers would not have considered the damage that exposure would do. Or is it? Was it just that (see earlier comment about the cluelessness of politicians in this area) that the risk never crossed what might loosely be called their minds?
  18. The biggest question of all — and the one least discussed – is whether the kind of comprehensive surveillance revealed by Snowden and other whistleblowers is compatible with any meaningful conception of democracy.

How do you do?

April 16th, 2014 [link]

How do you do2

Strange creature encountered on a Norfolk beach.

Department of Unintended Consequences

April 14th, 2014 [link]

Well, what do you know? This from the New York Times

The end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan mean that the graduates of the West Point class of 2014 will have a more difficult time advancing in a military in which combat experience, particularly since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been crucial to promotion. They are also very likely to find themselves in the awkward position of leading men and women who have been to war — more than two million American men and women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — when they themselves have not.

That reality is causing anxiety and unease at West Point.