January 30, 2013

Online Freedom

A couple of recent articles about 'online freedom' really grabbed my attention more than is normally the case when I scan such material. The first was a ZDNet post about the 'hack' of the U.S. Sentencing Commission website by the hacker-collective known as Anonymous. The second item was a very nice Op-Ed by Timothy Karr, published in the Seattle Times, in which he talks about the importance of protections needed to ensure the Internet remains what it has rapidly evolved to become: a globalized 'common good' like air, food, water and shelter.

'Online freedom' is such a complex, expansive, and nuanced issue that I'll not even attempt to fool myself into thinking I can do it justice in a brief blog post, but I do want to make a few observations.

First, 'the web' is probably that last domain or medium by/through which people can exchange information of any type, any where, at any time. It probably comes as close to 'unfettered freedom' in the public domain as one is likely to find in life and as such presents mind-boggling opportunity as well as enormous potential for harm. In a sense, it is the virtual-world/cyberspace analogy to what the U.S. has represented in the physical world to so many people for so many years. For multitudes, the U.S. has represented the idea that anyone has the opportunity to do anything, that in this country one has the freedom to pursue any dream...not the guarantee of an outcome, mind you, but the freedom to try. With that freedom, however, come 'vulnerability' and 'risk' and the very real potential to 'fail.' Every attempt to eliminate risk, to guarantee an outcome, or to reduce vulnerabilities to near-zero, however, necessarily means that controls over behavior must be effected, that efforts must be shaped and managed, and that comparative differences be 'normalized' such that one person or group does not have an inherent advantage over another. When freedom is maximized, there will always be winners and losers. But when controls are imposed to erase such disparity, freedom is sacrificed. All freedoms carry this inherent dichotomy. 'Freedom of speech' means equal freedom to praise as well as condemn, for a society to be able to express opposing views without fear of persecution. Freedom to 'arm and defend oneself' means your neighbor can have a gun, too. 

I do not propose that all freedoms are perfect in their implementation. As our own legal system has determined here in America, and we have wholly embraced, 'freedom of speech' does not mean the freedom the shout 'Fire' in a crowded theater because of the real danger of causing irreparable physical harm to others. But herein lies the rub: when 'freedom' bumps up against things like 'intellectual property', 'public good' (or safety), the inherent obligation of government to exercise its lawful responsibility to provide for various protections, etc., etc. These are in constant tension--the freedom to do vs. necessary constraints on activity to guard from excessive harm. In the midst of this, of course, are issues such as 'personal responsibility', 'individual restraint', 'willingness to accept risk' (and the natural and/or logical consequences of such risk), and protection of the weak against the predations of the strong.

Second, 'online freedom' is arguably the greatest tool in the eternal fight against repression, corruption, intimidation and criminality whether practiced by governments, corporations, criminal organizations, or private groups and individuals. We value a 'free press' because a responsible press corps has the ability to bring corrupt practices into the light of public visibility and thereby enable the public to hold officials of all types accountable for their actions. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter enable people to share information, collaborate on projects, and bring to public awareness all manner of issues. Much of it is inane, of course, but much of it is immensely good too.

Which leads me to a third point, that of the importance of not only protecting online-freedom but of promoting it even when problems are encountered. (When an issue is important enough - like recognizing the inherent right to maintain ownership and control of one's creative work - we find ways to protect such things without destroying the larger good that comes from sustaining the underlying freedom or right.) As I mentioned above, governments have an obligation to undertake tasks individual citizens or even a collected whole cannot do on their own, such as defending a country from invasion or establishing and maintaining a legal framework within which a society conducts business. But all too often governments abuse their power, exploiting their ability to draft and impose laws and rules, to compel compliance, and to effect punishments against which an individual citizen or minority group has little defense. In such cases, the Internet affords people the ability to share information about, raise awareness of, and mobilizing opposition against such corruption. 

Governments know this. Repressive, authoritarian regimes fear it. Examples abound but two that are regularly cited are the efforts by China and Iran to stifle dissent and prevent collective action by censoring the free exchange of information among their populations through control of the Internet within their borders.

It is sometimes observed that people should be mindful when they hear of efforts by one group to control another even in small things or when long-held 'rights' are lessened even a little, because once a precedent for such has been established and it becomes the 'new normal' it doesn't take as much effort to nibble away the next little chunk. At some point, the once-unassailable 'right' or 'freedom' is gone and people wonder how it all happened.

You might remember some reporting about our own fight here in the U.S. over this issue about a year ago. A couple of bills had been introduced into Congress for debate that would have placed restrictions on content and the exchange of information across the internet. A massive effort was mobilized by 'online freedom' advocates and a range of companies with both idealistic and capitalistic reasons for preventing their passage. Personally, I'm glad the freedom-advocates won.

In closing, let's return for just a brief moment to the hack perpetrated by Anonymous. I don't know much about the group but I found their manifesto quite interesting for a couple of reasons that include their commitment to 'net freedom' (and willingness to confront attacks on such) as well as insight into the strange new world dawning upon us in the form of high-level competitions waged in cyberspace, with all the implications we are only on the verge of beginning to understand. 

This evolving world is becoming our 'new normal'. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to understand these issues, to jealously guard our freedoms, and to make sure that those who have the ability (legally or technologically) to impose restrictions, controls, and limitations on such clearly understand that they are being watched and will be held accountable in the public domain for their policies and actions both here at home and in so many countries around the world where our freedoms remain a dream yet to be realized.

January 18, 2013

Passages and Perspectives

This coming Monday, our Country will observe the inauguration of our recently elected President. I can't help but think of previous inaugurations and what they have represented singularly in their own time and collectively across the fifty-six inaugurations that have preceded this one upcoming. I also can't help but draw comparisons. Take a few minutes to read Reagan's First Inaugural Address, noting what he emphasized, the sparing use of personal pronouns (and their specific context when used), his focus on the greatness of our country and the elements he believed made it great, and his prescription for the ills that plagued the U.S. as he took office. On Monday, do the same analysis. I think the differences will be stark.

Inaugural Address, Ronald Reagan
January 20, 1981 

Senator Hatfield, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O'Neill, Reverend Moomaw, and my fellow citizens:

To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.

The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity. 

But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.

January 17, 2013

"Customs, Traditions and Moral Values"

Sometimes a commentator publishes something that just doesn't need embellishment. Such is the case, in my opinion, with Walter William's latest item at Townhall.com. Though he references the current hullaballoo over gun ownership, he does so only to discuss the much more fundamental issue of societal restraints and where it comes from. If we are to find solutions to our problems, the first place we should be looking is the foundational underpinning for our culture, our form of government, and the societal framework that provided critical limits and reference points for what was acceptable in daily living. Without such a framework or foundation, we give license to our worst inclinations and suffer the consequences. 

Oh...and by way of illustrating Mr. Williams' article, I found this interesting little item originally published in the NY Times of all places, Jan 7, 1913. My, how the "Times" have changed!
Walter E. Williams 

When I attended primary and secondary school -- during the 1940s and '50s -- one didn't hear of the kind of shooting mayhem that's become routine today. Why? It surely wasn't because of strict firearm laws. My replica of the 1902 Sears mail-order catalog shows 35 pages of firearm advertisements. People just sent in their money, and a firearm was shipped. 

Dr. John Lott, author of "More Guns, Less Crime," reports that until the 1960s, some New York City public high schools had shooting clubs where students competed in citywide shooting contests for university scholarships. They carried their rifles to school on the subways and, upon arrival, turned them over to their homeroom teacher or the gym coach and retrieved their rifles after school for target practice. Virginia's rural areas had a long tradition of high-school students going hunting in the morning before school and sometimes storing their rifles in the trunks of their cars that were parked on school grounds. Often a youngster's 12th or 14th birthday present was a shiny new .22-caliber rifle, given to him by his father.

Today's level of civility can't match yesteryear's. Many of today's youngsters begin the school day passing through metal detectors. Guards patrol school hallways, and police cars patrol outside. Despite these measures, assaults, knifings and shootings occur. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 there were 828,000 nonfatal criminal incidents in schools. There were 470,000 thefts and 359,000 violent attacks, of which 91,400 were serious. In the same year, 145,100 public-school teachers were physically attacked, and 276,700 were threatened.

What explains today's behavior versus yesteryear's? For well over a half-century, the nation's liberals and progressives -- along with the education establishment, pseudo-intellectuals and the courts -- have waged war on traditions, customs and moral values. These people taught their vision, that there are no moral absolutes, to our young people. To them, what's moral or immoral is a matter of convenience, personal opinion or a consensus.

During the '50s and '60s, the education establishment launched its agenda to undermine lessons children learned from their parents and the church with fads such as "values clarification." So-called sex education classes are simply indoctrination that sought to undermine family and church strictures against premarital sex. Lessons of abstinence were ridiculed and considered passé and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortions. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor consent.

Customs, traditions, moral values and rules of etiquette, not laws and government regulations, are what make for a civilized society. These behavioral norms -- transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings -- represent a body of wisdom distilled through ages of experience, trial and error, and looking at what works. The importance of customs, traditions and moral values as a means of regulating behavior is that people behave themselves even if nobody's watching. Police and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct so as to produce a civilized society. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. The more uncivilized we become the more laws that are needed to regulate behavior.

Many customs, traditions and moral values have been discarded without an appreciation for the role they played in creating a civilized society, and now we're paying the price. What's worse is that instead of a return to what worked, people want to replace what worked with what sounds good, such as zero-tolerance policies in which bringing a water pistol, drawing a picture of a pistol, or pointing a finger and shouting "bang-bang" produces a school suspension or arrest. Seeing as we've decided that we should rely on gun laws to control behavior, what should be done to regulate clubs and hammers? After all, FBI crime statistics show that more people are murdered by clubs and hammers than rifles and shotguns.

January 16, 2013

It's gotta be one heck of a dented can!

"We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality"

One of my favorite quotes, perhaps because it's pithy and so wonderfully applicable across such a wide swath of issues. These days it seems most applicable to all things 'government.' I have several posts in draft-form that I hope to complete soon and I know I'll be referring to Rand's statement-of-the-obvious throughout them...not explicitly, perhaps, but certainly as a foundational theme.

The news is just chock-full of absurdities that reveal to the point of dismay the willful and wholesale evasion of reality in the absurd theater that passes for policymaking in Washington. I say 'willful' because the folks at the top of the political pile are not stupid. They know the ugly reality of our situation. They have unfettered access to all the information produced by our system and the wealth of lessons handed down from history. But in every instance, it seems, they choose to evade reality as they make promises that cannot be kept (and everyone knows it), set idealized objectives that cannot be attained (and everyone knows it), and swathe their agendas in the noblest-sounding rhetoric when most people have the sense to know they're being sold a bill of goods. They play 'we the people' for fools. But you know the really sad part? Too large of portion of 'we the people' play the game too. Knowing full well the consequences of evading reality, they not only buy the bill of goods, they buy it on credit!

This latest wrangling over sequestration, increasing revenue ('higher taxes' in plain-speak), and cuts to spending (which actually means decreasing only slightly the amount we are still over-spending) reminds me of the old story about two fleas fighting over who owns the dog; an irrelevant argument since neither flea has the slightest ability to exercise the control he arrogantly thinks he has. Just consider: the two parties can't reach agreement on reducing spending by $1 trillion over ten years, meaning, in reality, a 'measly' $100 billion less spending per year -- somewhat irrelevant when we are increasing our debt by over a trillion dollars every year!

All of which reminds me of another wonderfully apropos quote...

"And what would you do with a brain if you had one?"

January 6, 2013

Fiscal Cliff? Nope. Liability Falls? Yep.

I don't know about you but I am certainly comforted by the apparent fact that our national fiscal problems really aren't problems after all. Cliff? Pshaw! Based on policies emanating from Washington it appears it is more a gently sloping field of poppies...you know just like that heartwarming scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow are skipping along, enjoying the day on their way to the magical Emerald City where they hope to find the Wizard who can solve all their problems. 

Come to think of it...a little girl who is lost and trying to find her way, a lion without courage, a tin man without a heart, and a scarecrow without a brain all skipping along full of unbridled optimism through a field of pretty little flowers seductively lulling them into a fatal sleep... Maybe that IS the best picture of our current situation!

Back in the real world, Mortimer Zuckerman penned a good piece in a recent issue of U.S. News and World Report that is a pretty easy 'read' while still imparting the magnitude of the debt problem we are facing. A few extracts to set the stage:
  • Today the estimated unfunded total [debt] is more than $87 trillion, or 550 percent of our GDP. And the debt per household is more than 10 times the median family income.
  • Today, less than 40 percent of our budget is actually decided by Congress and the president, down from 62 percent 40 years ago. [the larger percentage is comprised of obligations or 'non-discretionary expenses' such as interest payments, social security, etc.]
  • Merely to avoid going deeper into debt, to cope with the speed at which compound interest is growing the real debt annually, we would have to collect $8 trillion in taxes each year...And here's the nub of it: All individuals filing tax returns in the country with incomes over $66,198 have a total adjusted gross income of about $5.2 trillion. The total corporate taxable income (at its peak in 2006) amounted to $1.6 trillion. This means that we have a maximum of roughly $7 trillion available if the government confiscated the entire gross income of individuals and corporations—not nearly enough to cover the yearly growth of U.S. liabilities. [emphasis added]
While this should be sufficient to raise at least an eyebrow or two -- "hey, Dorothy, I'm starting to feel really, really sleepy" -- it doesn't really address the 'how' of how we got here nor does it provide insight into the various forces in play that have effected and will continue to effect our situation.

This item, The Real Cliff, by Christopher Demuth (The Weekly Standard), however, does. It's the best article I've read on this topic. If you have any interest at all about the true nature of the fiscal problem our country is facing, please take the time to read this. It runs three and a half pages in print (in the magazine) but it's well worth your time, I assure you. 

Obviously I've had some fun with metaphors taken from the Wizard of Oz but the waterfall picture is much, much more apropos. The way I see it, a cliff is a static situation. The cliff is just 'there.' The only way one call fall over the edge (presuming you aren't pushed) is to walk to the lip and either lose your balance, have ground give way, or willingly leap to one's death. America isn't being 'pushed' by anyone, neither are we 'losing our balance.' If any 'ground is giving way' I guess one could make the case our economy is collapsing underneath us and that we are somehow powerless to stop it...but I just don't buy that. Are we willingly leaping to our death? 

In contrast, a waterfall is fed by a river that reaches a 'cliff' and flows on over. Rivers have currents that gather speed and strength. They have rocks and shoals and eddies and deep smooth runs and branches that feed in and lead away. They are formed by a myriad little rivulets that emerge from springs and are fed by runoff from surrounding terrain, that combine into a rushing torrent of water that proves to be extraordinarily resistant to change and difficult to emerge from. If you wait too long and get to near the falls, you're pulled over the edge regardless of any effort you make to escape. 

As Demuth so wonderfully, or sadly, points out we are very far downstream and rapidly approaching a fall that we may not be able to escape unless we somehow find the ability to exert herculean efforts to avoid. Some paraphrased highlights from his article:
  • America's de facto fiscal policy since the early 1960s: continuous government borrowing to pay for current consumption.
  • The Keynesian proposition in the context of practical politics...government officials, weighing current revenues and expenditures, should weigh the needs of the known present against the resources of an imagined future. But the present is always cluttered with problems and difficulties, while the future is an abstraction. 
  • It [has] turned out that the public's tolerance for high debt and deficits was much larger than anyone had supposed. Today, one would have to say that tolerance is unlimited so long as the public is faced with abstract numbers in newspaper headlines rather than tangible consequences.
  • Generational accounting suggests that future generations will be paying nearly all of their lifetime income in taxes, which obviously cannot happen...the real harm of financing current consumption with ever-increasing public debt [is that substantial] segments of the population become accustomed to levels of government benefits that cannot be sustained.
The herculean effort required in our current situation? Congress must gather the courage to say 'no' -- to the President, to constituents, to their own careers if necessary -- and lay-out to the public the reality of our situation while the public must realign its expectations with fiscal realities. If this doesn't happen, and very soon, then we're all going over the falls together.

I hope Glinda shows up soon!

The Rock

In the mid-1990s, I had occasion to visit Gibraltar, that small peninsula jutting out from Spain into the Mediterranean and which helps marks the strait that separates Europe from North Africa. It was ceded to Britain in 1713 following its capture nine years earlier during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Brits keep the face of 'the Rock' brightly illuminated at night in part to showcase its dramatic appearance but more likely, I think, as a way to thumb its nose at the Spanish who still argue for its return even after 300 years. Legend has it that Gibraltar will remain under British Rule as long as its famed monkeys remain. I've read that during WWII Churchill ordered additional monkeys imported from northern Africa when their numbers dwindled to just a half-dozen or so!

One of the things that struck me most during the trip (aside from an awesome portion of 'tasty cod, caught fresh this morning' served up by a local fish-n-chips shop owner) was a mosque under construction at that time on the southernmost tip of the peninsula. The Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque was completed in 1997, built as a "gift" by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at a cost of approximately $8 million. Intended to serve the 2000 Muslims who comprise 4% of Gibralter's population, it is reportedly one of the largest mosques in a non-Muslim country. You can see its location here.

Over the past decade there has been a steady, and steadily increasing, amount of reporting about the spread of Islam across Europe and its displacing (or perhaps subduing) the traditional cultures and beliefs of Europe. Since 9-11 there has been a parallel uptick in reporting about the equally steady decay in the national identities of European nations and the erosion of much of what defined 'Europe' to the rest of the world. Though the causes for this are many and varied, most of the discussion with which I'm familiar attributes this shift to a few 'baskets' that include: an increase in materialism and secularism following the Second World War, the collapse of the Catholic Church as a central influence, the rise of the United States as the dominant power among Western countries (implying that the old countries of Europe receded from the global stage), and the emergence of 'globalism' as a defining characteristic of of an increasingly connected world with the resulting profound shift of capital and manufacturing away from Europe to other corners of the globe. As Europeans lost their place of preeminence they turned inward; freed of the cost of their own defense (the U.S. picking up the tab) their governments were able to devote huge sums to social programs upon which the people came to depend (and to demand); and as social stigmas--the moderating frameworks for social values--were eliminated, institutions such as "the Church" were increasingly viewed as close-minded anachronisms of a bygone era.

The result? Europeans became self-absorbed, were willingly seduced by socialist policies, and immersed themselves in moral relativism. Times were good and the livin' was easy--even more so with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the passing of the mortal danger posed by armored divisions arrayed along the inner-German border. 

Others took notice, of course, of the opportunities presented by generous, government-ensured benefits; the availability of jobs made possible because the 'locals' had little incentive to embrace low-pay, long-hours, socially undesirable labors; and little-to-no expectation that newcomers should leave behind the cultural norms of their home country to embrace those of their new host--such as largely occurred in turn-of-the-century America (where even though Italians, Germans, Scots, et al cooked, talked, and caroused at home as they did in the Old Country they fully embraced their New outside the home).

The Europeans are waking up to the insidious dangers of multiculturalism, socialism, and moral relativism but it may be too late. Muslim communities in major cities across Europe are firmly rooted, growing in size at rates many times that of the indigenous population, and energized by the confidence that comes from knowing who you are and what you want...especially when the the society around you is weak, aimless, and unanchored by any core belief.

Here in America our cultural, intellectual and political 'elite' seem to look to Europe as the enlightened example of what a society can be once it sheds the shackles of social, fiscal, and religious conservatism.  I wish they would instead look to Europe to see the consequences of Europe's 'enlightened' approach:
- education systems co-opted
- terrorists released
- political and social landscapes transformed (and here) complete with parallel legal systems
- aggressive, truly repressive, and intolerant beliefs filling the vacuum created by secular indifference  and religious corruption, and
- Western societies wholly unwilling to accept the economic consequences of policies they demanded from their governments (stories the Europe's economic problems too numerous to mention).

What should we be learning from the state of things in Europe?
- the long-term dangers inherent in the 'fiscal cliff' we are still trying to ignore
- the social and economic consequences of bankrupt cities and states (with the underlying causes still not yet addressed - see here and here for examples)
- trillions in unfunded liabilities
- loss of a cohesive identity that binds a people together rather than driving wedges between the various subcultures that comprise a national populace
- loss of a commonly held (even in the most general sense) spiritual, moral, or social compact against which a society measures acceptable behavior/norms.

A boat that breaks from its mooring or loses its anchor finds itself dangerously adrift unless it has an engine strong enough to overcome wind, waves and currents and a sure heading along which it churns to reach a known destination. At present America has neither - our policies and expectations are not anchored by any definable rationale, thus we are buffeted by myriad competing influences from abroad, and we don't have any clear idea where we want to head even if we had the 'strong engine' of a robust economy and foreign policy we enjoyed and benefitted from so much in our past.