Obama tries the usual scare tactics

From today’s NYT

Mr. Obama has kept up pressure on the Senate to pass the legislation by arguing that the surveillance it authorizes is vital to thwarting a terrorist attack, despite a lack of evidence that it has ever done so.

In a statement issued shortly before Mr. Obama spoke, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said that intelligence professionals “will lose important capabilities” if the authorities expire.

Senior administration officials say that even if the programs cannot be shown to have foiled any attacks, they provide essential “building blocks” on which terrorism investigations are built, akin to grand juries, which are an integral part of criminal cases even if they never themselves stop a crime.

Emphases added. So much for evidence-based policy-making.

A pivotal moment

The resounding ‘Yes” vote in the Irish Referendum on changing the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage is a pivotal moment in the history of my beloved homeland. And in the history of the world too, in a small way, because this is the first occasion in which legal equality has been conferred on non-heterosexuals by a popular vote.

My private expectation was that it would be a narrowly positive vote, and that it would be decided by the urban/rural divide, with the electorates of Dublin, Cork and Galway voting overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ and most of the rural constituencies voting ‘No’. In the event I was completely wrong: only one constituency (Roscommon-South Leitrim) went negative, and that by a small margin. There was still an urban/rural divide, but it was much narrower than I had expected.


Cartoon by Martyn Turner in today’s Irish Times.

What it means (and what the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, conceded) is that Irish society has finally turned the corner towards secularity. What’s astonishing, in some ways, is that it took so long, especially given how long the revelations about the hypocrisy and criminality of the Catholic church over child abuse have been in the public domain. The idea that this decrepit, decaying institution could pretend to be a guide to morals (not to mention politics) was laughable for decades, but it seems that it is only now that its bluff has finally been called.

In one way, it was bound to happen, for demographic reasons — or what marketing consultants call “biological leakage”, i.e. the remorseless tendency of older people to pass away. But that doesn’t lessen the sense of wonder that it has finally happened. As the Irish Times put it in its First Leader,

“the time when bishops could instruct the Irish people on how to vote has long gone. What we may not have appreciated until now is that being a young, networked society has political consequences that can overturn the cynical conventional wisdom about voting behaviour, turnout and engagement.

This is the first Irish electoral event in which young people have taken the lead and determined the outcome and it has been a bracing, refreshing experience. It had been visible on the streets for weeks in the Yes badges that became ubiquitous during the campaign but it had its most potent and poignant expression in the multitude of young emigrants who came home to vote on Friday. Here, in a single gesture, was all the pathos of separation and longing; an expression of solidarity and belonging; and an enduring loyalty to the nation that had so signally failed them. The tweets from those returning to vote for marriage equality were at once inspiring and heartbreaking, testimony to our failure and their promise.”

The campaign was fascinating because it was, as Noel Whelan put it in the Times, “the most extensive civic society campaign ever seen in Irish politics”. In that sense, it reminded one of the campaign that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008. The people who masterminded it — Brian Sheehan and Gráinne Healey — have shown themselves to be consummate, canny strategists who crafted a campaign that was deliberately open and conversational rather than confrontational. (The chosen theme was: “I’m Voting Yes, Ask Me Why?”)

For me, it was especially cheering to see that a long, lonely and exceedingly courageous campaign by a fellow Joycean, Senator David Norris, had finally born fruit. Writing in the Times today, he recalled the long and winding road “from criminal to equal citizen”:

I have been privileged in my life to follow a remarkable trajectory from being defined into criminality, challenging the criminal law, losing in the High Court and Supreme Courts, finally winning out by a margin of one vote in Europe, seeing the criminal law changed and then starting to build on this basis for human and civil rights for gay people.

Fifty years ago my first boyfriend said to me outside a Wimpy Bar on Burgh Quay: “I love you David but I can’t marry you.” I still remember that all these years later.

Go forward 10 years when, after a debate on decriminalisation, the late Mona Bean O’Cribben remarked vehemently to me: “This isn’t just about decriminalisation. You have a homosexual agenda. You won’t be satisfied until you have homosexual marriage.” I turned to her and said: “What a wonderful idea, thank you very much madam, have you got any other suggestions?”

But there is another, intangible but real, aspect to this vote. One of the strangely positive side-effects of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years — when the Irish economy zoomed from sensible economic development to casino property-development insanity — was that my fellow citizens experienced for the first time what it was like to be seen as successful by the rest of the world. It was suddenly, as some of them observed at the time, “cool to be Irish”. All of which meant that the bust and the subsequent economic collapse had an even harsher psychic impact: it turned out that we had been kidding ourselves; that we had, as Frank McDonald (the great Irish Times journalist) used to say, “lost the run of ourselves”.

But one of the most unexpected byproducts of Friday’s vote is that we can be genuinely proud of ourselves, and for a reason infinitely better than fuelling a crazed property boom: for once, we did the right thing. Not a bad day’s work.

Hypocrisy on stilts

One of the more nauseating aspects of the US response to Edward Snowden’s revelations is the constant refrain about how he is supposedly damaging the national interest and giving succour to its enemies by revealing how the US does its surveillance. And yet, as TechDirt reports,

Over the weekend, the US government announced that special forces soldiers entered Syria to conduct a raid that killed an alleged leader of ISIS, Abu Sayyaf. In the process, anonymous US officials leaked classified information to the New York Times that’s much more sensitive than anything Edward Snowden ever revealed, and it serves as a prime example of the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to disclosures of secret information.

Here’s how the New York Times described how the US conducted this “successful” raid:

“The raid came after weeks of surveillance of Abu Sayyaf, using information gleaned from a small but growing network of informants the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have painstakingly developed in Syria, as well as satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, American officials said. The White House rejected initial reports from the region that attributed the raid to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”

Read that carefully and pretend it was Snowden who leaked this information, instead of nameless Pentagon spokesmen. US officials would be screaming from the rooftops that he leaked extremely timely and sensitive intelligence (it was literally only hours old), that he will cause specific terrorists to change their communications behavior, and most importantly, he put the lives of informants at risk. (Note: none of Snowden’s leaks did any of these things.)

Yet despite the fact that the ISIS raid was discussed on all of the Sunday shows this week, no one brought up anything about this leak. Contrast that with Snowden’s revelations, where government officials will use any situation to say the most outlandish things possible in an attempt to smear his whistleblowing—regardless of their basis in reality. Take former CIA deputy director and torture advocate Mike Morrell, for example, who is currently on a book promotion tour and has been preposterously suggesting that Snowden’s leaks somehow led to the rise of ISIS.

Advice from right field

Sometimes, interesting ideas come from the least-expected sources.

Here, for example, is Tim Montgomerie in The Times offering some to the Labour Party:

“Left-wing parties need to find a new identity for a movement that has been defined by redistribution for as long as Marxism elbowed Methodism aside as socialism’s main inspiration. What is the left’s new purpose? Intergenerational equality? Using new technology for progressive ends? Housebuilding to spread ownership of assets? Or even some renewed recognition of the value of Methodism’s voluntary mutuality?”

Answer: All of the above, but underpinned by an overarching analysis of the world as it is, not as it used to be or as we’d like it to be.

Interesting also that Montgomerie mentions the one thing that Labour under Miliband resolutely ignored: the potential of the Net to revitalise political action.

Technology and the future of work

Our Technology and Democracy research project had a terrific talk this afternoon by Mike Osborne of the Oxford Martin School about the research that he and Carl Frey published in “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”.

That paper is impressive in lots of ways. Unlike many academic research reports, for example, it’s written in pellucid prose. And it’s historically informed — which is unusual in technology publications: the authors know that the issue of the impact of machinery on jobs goes back a long, long way — at least to Elizabethan times with William Lee and his request for a patent on his stocking frame loom.

But most importantly, the Frey-Osborne study is the best analysis to date of what we in our project regard as one of the most significant puzzles of our time: namely what does the combination of infinite computational power, big data, machine learning and advanced robotics mean for our future? Or, to quote the title of Norbert Wiener’s book, what will constitute “the human use of human beings” in a digital future?

What preoccupies us is the question of whether we now stand on a hinge of history. Are there things about digital technologies which make our situation and prospects different from the disruptions that our ancestors faced when confronted with the seminal general-purpose technologies of the past? Can we say with any confidence that this time it’s different?

Mike’s presentation provoked lots of thoughts…

The first is the objection often made by historians and economists who argue say that apocalyptic concerns about digital technology are just outbreaks of a-historical hysteria. Historically, they say, technological progress has always had two conflicting impacts on employment. One is the overtly destructive impact — the leading edge of the Schumpeterian wave, if you like. The other is the capitalisation effect, as companies start to enter industries where productivity is relatively high, leading to the expansion of employment in these new or revitalised industries. So, according to the sceptics, although automation definitely taketh away, it also giveth.

But if I’ve understood Mike and Carl’s work correctly, this time it might be different, for two reasons.

  • One is that whereas automation historically served to eliminate manual and/or highly routinised tasks, the new digital technologies mean that automation is remorselessly moving into work domains that have traditionally been seen as cognitive and non-routine.

  • The second is that what happening now is what Brian Arthur called “combinatorial innovation”, which is basically the network effect applied to technological innovation. This means that the pace of innovation is increasing exponentially, which in turn means that our traditional capacity to transition into employment in new areas is going to be outpaced by the pace of change. In which case, the life-chances of a lot of human beings could be undermined or destroyed.

Which leads to a final thought, namely that in the end this will have to come down to politics. Mike and Carl’s analysis is not a deterministic one — they don’t imply that the job-destruction that they think could happen will happen. Decisions about whether to deploy these technologies will, in the end, be made by people –- the owners of capital — not by machines. And if there’s no element of societal control in all this, then the clear implication is that Piketty’s rule about the returns from capital generally outrunning the returns from employment will be turbocharged, with predictable consequences for inequality.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. The economic and productivity gains that result from these technologies could be used for different purposes other than giving even more to those who already have. And that brings to mind Keynes’s famous essay on “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he saw the possibility that, through technology-driven productivity gains, man “could for the first time since his creation … be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”.

Only politics can ensure that that agreeable prospect comes to pass, however. This isn’t just about technology, in other words.

And now here’s the really strange thing: in all the sturm und drang of our recent election campaign, the implications of computerisation for employment weren’t mentioned once. Not once.

Why data is political

Intriguing piece in Slate:

Imagine visiting Yellowstone this summer. You wake up before dawn to take a picture of the sunrise over the mists emanating from Yellowstone hot springs. A thunderhead towers above the rising sun, and the picture turns out beautifully. You submit the photo to a contest sponsored by the National Weather Service. Under a statute signed into law by the Wyoming governor this spring, you have just committed a crime and could face up to one year in prison.

Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

Now, why would that be?

The reason is pure politics. The source of E. coli is clear. It comes from cows spending too much time in and next to streams. Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem.

Ah! Why does this remind me of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People?

Follow the money

The debate about why the opinion polls got the election so spectacularly wrong has begun. This piece by Leighton Vaughan Williams makes an interesting point:

Interestingly, those who invested their own money in forecasting the outcome performed a lot better in predicting what would happen than did the pollsters. The betting markets had the Conservatives well ahead in the number of seats they would win right through the campaign and were unmoved in this belief throughout. Polls went up, polls went down, but the betting markets had made their mind up. The Tories, they were convinced, were going to win significantly more seats than Labour.

I have interrogated huge data sets of polls and betting markets over many, many elections stretching back years and this is part of a well-established pattern. Basically, when the polls tell you one thing, and the betting markets tell you another, follow the money. Even if the markets do not get it spot on every time, they will usually get it a lot closer than the polls.

So now you know what to do next time.

We need a new electoral system. But we won’t get it.

From the Economist:

The SNP vote was part of a widespread rejection of Westminster politics. The solution for that involves fixing Britain’s broken electoral system. The SNP won about 5% of the popular vote in Britain and more than 50 seats. The UK Independence Party won about 10% of the vote but seemed likely to end up with one or two seats. With the relationship between votes and MPs in the Commons now almost random, the first-past-the-post method of allocating seats has clearly failed.

The case for topping up this creaking system with proportional representation, something this newspaper has long supported, has now become overwhelming. Tory backbenchers will object, but Mr Cameron might get enough support from others to override them—and would transform British politics for the better. For a weak government, that would be an impressive achievement.

It would. But they won’t do it.

How to lose gracefully

Nice essay by Stephen Moss. Concludes thus:

It is fashionable to decry politicians as venal, self-interested, ineffectual, but on election night – as the smoke on the battlefield clears – we see them at their best. Most of us went to bed last night knowing we would have the same job and the same life the next morning. Politicians don’t have that comfort. Their nearest equivalent is sports people, for whom every game is win or lose, make or break, life or death. Many were broken last night, and mostly they responded with courage and dignity. Not lions in the political jungle, but not hyenas either. Just people, finding something in themselves that allowed them to rise above the bitterness of seeing everything they had spent their life working for extinguished.


Reflections on the non-revolution in Britain

In no particular order…

  • The BBC exit poll, which predicted that the Tories would get 316 seats — and which I did not believe, was closer to the mark than I thought. As the results trickled in, however, it was interesting to see that while the two big parties attracted roughly the same percentage of the vote, the numbers of seats accruing from that were sharply divergent. That’s the FPTP (first past the post) system for you.

  • The opinion polls got it wrong. Period. I wonder if that’s because they are intrinsically too bound up with share of the vote (which they got right) and not with seats. They must surely adjust for the non-linearities of FPTP? Mustn’t they?

  • My first thought when I woke at 5.50am this morning and saw how it was going was that it will be 1992 all over again. The Tories will, at best, have a tiny majority. They will again tear themselves apart over Europe — as they did in John Major’s wretched administration. Journalists will spend all their time listening to the rabid opinions of obscure Tory backbench xenophobes, etc.

  • Allied to that, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a fall in the value of sterling. After all, markets famously hate uncertainty. The arrival of a Tory minority (or bare-majority) government means that the in-out referendum on Europe will be held. And — as the Irish government knows only too well — referenda can go badly wrong, which in this case would mean a popular vote to leave the EU. And that would lead to a stampede by many big companies to Ireland or elsewhere, because these outfits definitely do want to remain inside the Community.

  • And allied to that, there is also the prospect of a Scottish exit from the UK in the event of a ‘UK’ decision to leave the EC.

  • The Labour party was deservedly destroyed in Scotland. It was a corrupt, complacent, Tammany Hall type operation in most constituencies. And allied to that, it was the party that opposed independence in the Scottish referendum.

  • For Labour generally, it’s a catastrophic result, but not surprising because the party has essentially lost its bearings and it has run out of ideas. Its old industrial base has essentially evaporated. Its trusty, corrupt Scottish base has finally been destroyed. And the boundary revision which the Lib Dems delayed when in the Coalition, will now go ahead, with the result that they will lose their inbuilt majorities in about 20 seats.

  • Britain needs a progressive centre-left political party. (Actually, every liberal democracy needs one.) Tony Blair could have created one on the back of his landslide victory in 1997. he had, after all, begun the job of remodelling the Labour party by jettisoning Clause Four etc. But he didn’t finish the job. Miliband also had an opportunity to re-imagine the party when he decided to break the fundraising link with the trade unions. He could have embarked on a reforming path to use the Net not only for fundraising but also for re-energising the party at grassroots level. But he didn’t. And now he has paid the price.

  • In the you-win-some-you-lose-some category, I’m sorry that Vince Cable lost his seat, but delighted that Ed Balls was also unhorsed.

  • As to what this result really means, two thoughts:

  1. George Osborne will be free to get on with his pet neoliberal project, namely shrinking the state
  2. The most chilling thing I heard this morning was something the Home Secretary (aka Minister of the Interior) said when asked what she would now be able to do that she couldn’t do in Coalition. The first thing she would do, she replied, was to re-introduce the Communications Data Bill (the so-called “snoopers’ charter”) that the Lib Dems had stopped. The National Security State is alive and well and living in Britain.