Monday, November 12, 2007

Polarization isn't the Real Issue

I cannot agree with Robin Hanson's dismal take on the information presented in this recent book to the effect that the USA is more politically polarized than any other first world nation. Apparently what the stats show is that only 34% of the people in America regularly talk to someone who disagrees with them politically. Oh - and "only 23 percent of Americans could recall having a political conversation with someone who disagreed with them." (Just Don't Ask how those numbers manage to coexist. I guess the idea is that we're expected to believe that the first number means people of different political stripes don't travel in the same circles and that when they happen to, roughly 1/3 of them avoid political conversation altogether?)

This is contrasted with such places as Japan and Hong Kong, who enjoy lively political discourse.

Wait, wha...???

Well, yeah - apparently the lynchpin stat in the book is some question about whether you perceive the two people you most regularly talk to as "politically partisan" and then whether or not you agree with them. It seems US citizens are most likely to both perceive their two conversational best-mates as "partisan" and also to agree with them. And it is on this that they base the allegation that the US is "more polarized." Japan and Hong Kong, by contrast, neither perceive their friends as "partisan" nor agree with them politically. And this, one presumes, is meant to be politically healthy.

Actually, I would submit that things are more complex than that. I lived in Japan for three years, and it's true that politics never comes up - and that on the rare occasions it does it's almost always international politics, and everyone agrees with everyone else about that (the general consensus is that Japan is Japan and Japan Japan Japan). But I would be a Clinton if I tried to sell you on the idea that there is healthy political discourse in Japan because it Just Ain't So. The reason no one is "partisan" there and the reason no one forms cliques based on politics there is because there's nothing to talk about. Japan is a Democracy in Name Only - in reality it's run by a giant fraternity that calls itself the Liberal Democratic Party, which is staffed entirely by people who made their connections by regularly drinking too much at one of Japan's top state schools (the so-called "Imperial Universities," which in practice for getting a government job is really just Tokyo University and sometimes maybe on an off day Kyoto University) and have their government jobs only because they're friends with the people who held the position before them. There is no meaningful political debate in Japan because this party always wins, and it has been setting policy for so long that it would probably be unwise to elect anyone else at this point. Japan is a post-political society. So it's true that Japan is "less polarized" than the US - but it's not at all clear that this is translates into "healthy discourse." If you think general apathy passing itself off as consensus is politically healthy, then sure, but somehow I don't think that's what the book in question has in mind.

I think to a lesser degree the same is true in Europe as well. Fine - most European countries have, in practice, some kind of two-party-ish system in place (with, on average, three or so others forming a peanut gallery on the backbenches), and I suppose that there is some measure of "partisanship" involved in deciding which of these parties you generally vote for. But in fact there tends to be little difference between them - and they simply trade power back and forth with one of the two increasing welfare spending a bit and the other one bringing it down a bit, and so on and on and on. Europeans are, as far as I can tell, about 90% Socialist. They're all roughly American Democrats. When they're students, they flirt with more radical Socialism, but I never had the impression that anyone I met was really all that serious about it. It's just sort of a way of talking - an "in-group" test, really. Inside, they're all fairly sensible Social Democrats, and I don't see much evidence that people's opinions in Europe change much as they get older.

To the extent that America is "polarized," it's because there's still a real political debate going on here. In the years after WWII, the world shifted sharply to the Left (a process that had arguably begun in the early 1930s - and was certainly being agitated for since the end of WWI). I'm not merely talking about the now-defunct experimental nations like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Cambodia. I mean in general the world headed left. A tide of Social Democracy swept Europe - and that seems to be the model of choice for the nations that have joined the first world more recently.

The US is one of the few countries left where Capitalism is still on the table as an option. Even here, very few people are talking about full-on free market Capitalism - but in spirit it's a part of the debate in the sense that there is a real commitment to the rights of individuals over and above the perrogatives of the state here. In the US, for example, "free speech" still, to a lot of people (not everyone, of course), means the right to say whatever you want, regardless of whom it offends. This is the case virtually nowhere else in the world, where there are broadly agreed-upon prohibitions against "socially harmful" speech. In the US, for example, there are still large swathes of the nation that resist zoning laws on the principle that owned property is owned property. Such a thing would be unthinkable pretty much anywhere else. The US is the only country I know of where general gun-ownership is defended on self-defense grounds, not just against intruders but against the government. There are other countries that allow handgun possession, but nowhere else considers gun ownership an "inalienable right;" no other country allows them for these ideological reasons.

The US is polarized because Social Democracy hasn't quite taken hold here. Don't get me wrong - the US is a socialist country just like every other major first world country - but the culture is not yet completely socialized. And so sure, we're more "polarized," but I think that's because a substantive debate is still going on here. In most of the rest of the world, the debate is over, and the socialists won. Political parties in these countries are historical artefacts, functional mechanisms in the system but little more. (Note, I think the same is true of the Republicans and the Democrats - they are not substantially different - but it so happens that most true Capitalists vote Republican, and so that party becomes a useful vehicle for political partisanship.) Here, even if the parties aren't too terribly different, sections of the population are.

Now, of course it isn't clear that consensus is a bad thing. In fact, I would think that broad consensus is the goal of any political system. We're trying, as it were, to evolve a system that is more or less acceptable to everyone; it is, or should be, the dream of every political partisan to set up the system in such a way that politics is a minor concern in people's lives. This is why I have always been skeptical of the criticism of low voter turnouts, for example. The low turnout in and of itself tells us nothing - it's the reason for it that matters. If the reason in a particular instance is that people are broadly satisfied and all candidates are promising various flavors of more of the same, then I call low turnout a sign of SUCCESS. And indeed, in a strange way I envy Japan its apathy politics. I don't like the particular brand of politics they've settled on, but I must honestly admit that it's right for the Japanese as I understand them, and in any case it was nice to live somewhere where I could take a three-year break from world news and, in the words of Yuri Zhivago, "just live." (The surest sign, in fact, that Communism is a Thing to be Avoided Like the Plague is that it advocates perpetual revolution - i.e. no end to politics in our lifetime.)

My overall point is just that I think Hanson is looking at this all backward. The US is "polarized" only because there are still issues of principle being struggled over here. The rest of the world is "less polarized" because those issues have been decided. In other words, I strongly suspect that a conversation between a German CSU supporter and his SPD-voting friend isn't too different from a conversation between two American Democrats - one "moderate" and one "less moderate." Compared to the analogous situation in the US, they're on the same team. Partisanship isn't a "thing-in-itself." It's an artefact of the range of principles on the table for discussion. There is no "disease" of partisanship that is killing US discourse. Rather, it's just that there happens to be a discourse at all. If the Free State Project had picked a locality in the Netherlands, for example, I'm sure the ensuing debate would be much more "partisan" than you currently see in New Hampshire.

No study of "partisanship" can be complete without addressing the question of what sort of behavior we would expect on average from people of differing ideologies co-existing in the same political space. Although I admit I haven't read the book, I strongly suspect that what's in operation is an ellaborate example of ignoring the baseline. That is, to properly label the US "partisan" or "polarized," you'd first have to establish some expectation of what "normal" political discourse involves and then demonstrate that the US has deviated from that. To do so without reference to the range of ideologies represented and the extent to which they differ is to put oneself in danger of mistaking consensus for "healthy discourse," which is what I think has almost certainly happened here.

So that I am not misunderstood - I don't see any particular value in political debate in and of itself. I reject the idea that a politically healthy nation is one where power frequently changes hands. Quite the contrary - I think the ultimate goal is to settle on a correct system that we all broadly agree on, so that we can spend out time arguing about art. Political debate is only useful in as far as it helps us reach this system. So in that light, I suppose it would be better if people in the US talked to each other more about politics. But only, you understand, for the purpose of convincing the Social Democratic majority that Capitalism is the way to go. I am not interested in political debate if it leads to more socialism in this country, and I am not interested in political debate for the sake of political debate. My purpose in debating with people is to convince them to vote Libertarian. And of course, the rules of debate require a wager: if I expect my debate partner to approach my ideas with an open mind, then I am naturally required to approach his with an open mind as well - to defend my points with logical arguments and seriously consider any cogent arguments he gives me. No pain no gain, as it were. But that doesn't change my goal - which is to "win," whereby "winning" means convincing someone to embrace free-market Capitalism.

So this "polarized" label - it's beside the point, really.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Screwing around on the internets today I ran across this cool book review at Amazon.

It starts off:

I gave this book one star simply because I have not read it yet, but I have ordered it and can't wait to read it cover to cover.

Then it descends into a diatribe about how the military is too sissified these days (which actually makes a kind of sense given the book in question), and I'm left sort of aghast wondering not so much why anyone would write a review about a book they've never read (I mean, that's weird, don't get me wrong, but I'm sure it happens all the time), but rather why you would give one star to a book you expect to enjoy? (!!!)

There is douchebaggery in the world, let me tell you...

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Ongoing Rape Crisis

So the paper just wrapped up another three-part series on the campus rape "problem." I think they're up to about twice a semester on this by now. The story this time 'round actually has me concerned, but probably not about the things they want me to be concerned about. Here are my thoughts.

To the extent that there is a rape problem on campus, it is a problem of underreporting. I am 100% behind any effort to encourage women to who have been raped to go to hospitals and have a rape kit administered - because this is really the only reliable basis on which the prosecutor can mount a case. If the prosecutor is given the material on which to build a solid case, then of course he should proceed. Rape is a violent crime, and it is primarily against this kind of crime that the criminal justice system exists to protect us.

What I grow increasingly tired of hearing from the IDS, the Office for Women's Affairs, and the Middle Way House is how widespread the rape "epidemic" (their word, not mine) on campus is supposed to be. For example - the IDS tells us that there are 43 reports of rape to every 1 prosecuted - as though that is supposed to convince me that rape is common. I'm sorry, but without real evidence that these rapes have occurred, there is nothing to distinguish this from the situation where false reports of rape are common, the crime itself rare. And indeed, there is reliable evidence that false reports of rape are common. I cannot simply "take people at their word" that they have been raped.

Well, the feminists will say, but there are solid reasons to believe that rape is underreported. Going through a rape is meant to be traumatic, so the victim doesn't even want to believe it's happened for a couple of days afterward. Alright - granted, maybe there are reasons to believe that it is underreported. But it seems to me that there are equally convincing reasons to believe that it is overreported. Namely, girls who regret having slept with someone can easily pass it off as rape and absolve themselves of responsibility. And in fact, this has already happened twice this year at IU that we know - most prominently when a girl went to the police with a report that she had been kidnapped off of 10th Street by three men, when the reality was that it was only one man, and there was no kidnapping because she'd arranged to meet him herself in a hotel room after having met him online.

And indeed, there are a couple of other feminist myths about rape worth dispelling.

First, being sent to prison for a rape you didn't commit is much worse than being raped. Rape involves - what? - about 10 minutes of physical torture. And then there is the associated psychological trauma, which will of course be worse for some victims than for others. Contrast this with what happens to someone falsely convicted. He is sent to prison - for YEARS. Prison is usually a violent place: he will probably undergo physical trauma worse than that of the average rape victim over the course of his stay there. He may even be raped multiple times himself. When he is released, he will have a permanent blot on his record that makes it difficult to find a job, live a normal life, pursue a meaningful career, or form normal relationships with people. Clearly, this is worse that being raped once at a party.

If for no other reason than that, we cannot simply relax the "innocent until proven guilty" standard for this one crime because victims of it typically find it difficult to come forward in time. People who want this sort of punishment administered to their attacker need to be willing to play ball to make sure that the system is honestly pursuing the real criminals. Protecting the victims' feelings is important - but only if they are real victims, and certainly not at the cost of sending innocent men to prison on spurious charges. That is why I find it entirely unacceptable that the recent IDS report spends three articles talking about a spate of crimes that they cannot even prove occurred as though they were established fact without any mention of the real human consequences that encouraging false reports of rapes is likely to have on others.

Another feminist myth that needs busting: warning young girls away from frat parties is not "blaming the victim," it is good advice.

I am really getting tired of the feminist "blaming the victim" mantra. In fact, that they keep repeating it is the surest evidence I have that this is a political tool for them more than an actual concern with women's safety.

The most recent article in the IDS' latest trilogy, in fact, blames rape on "campus culture." It contains such inane statements as this one, from Middle Way House crisis intervention services coordinator Liz Hannibal:

Women have a right to feel sexy and to be cute.

Well, sure, but just because you have a right to something doesn't make it safe in all circumstances. I have a right to buy all kinds of jewlry and walk around in the ghetto at night too, but that doesn't mean I won't get robbed if I do. It isn't "blaming the victim" to tell a rich kid not to flaunt his wealth in a poor, high-crime neighborhood after dark. We would all agree that a robbery that occurs under these circumstances is still a robbery and still against the law and still prosecutable. Nothing about that makes it a bad idea to tell people to have the common sense to avoid the situation in question.

Women can be as sexy and cute as they like, but that doesn't make it a good idea to dress up all sexy and go to a frat party and get drunk if you're not planning on having sex, and it isn't "blaming the victim" for me to say so.

Office for Women's Affairs director Carol McCord has this nugget of wisdom:

“Why is it that men believe that a woman who is drunk, passed out or asleep is someone they can have sex with?” she said.

Um ... well, gee, I can think of two possibilities. Either (a) because he's a selfish, sex-obsessed horny scumbag or (b) because maybe he's been drinking a bit himself and isn't thinking too clearly. If it's (a), then parties where girls dress up cute and get drunk enough to pass out is his natural hunting ground. Meaning - girls who don't want to have sex need to take precautions when they go to such parties - like, oh, I dunno - maybe at the very least not drinking till they pass out? If it's (b), we really have to wonder why the Women's Affairs Center apparently thinks women should feel like they can drink irresponsibly enough to pass out whereas men are expected to maintain total control over what they do and take full responsibility for all decisions they make while inebriated? That sounds more than a little sexist to me. What's good for the gander is good for the goose, as it were: if inebriation is not an acceptable defense for a man who has sex with a passed out girl, then at the very least it ought to be OK for us to warn girls that drinking to excess at frat parties is dangerous without being automatically accused of "blaming the victim."

Here is another thing I know: girls who dress to impress and go to frat parties are looking to turn guys on. That's why they go. Many of them aren't planning to have sex with anyone - they just enjoy teasing guys. That's a bit mean, of course, but they're within their rights. Nothing about their teasing makes raping them OK.

However, it DOES make it quite disingenuous of the Middle Way House to say things like "women have a right to feel sexy,"as if that were all that's going on. Putting it that way totally writes the man out of the equation - but the man is the essential ingredient here. She can't "feel sexy" without him. And if she's chosen, as her venue for indulging this little hobby of hers, a party thrown by men specifically to increase their chances of getting laid by getting everyone drunk all round, then gee, it doesn't take an advanced degree in logic to figure out that she'll want to be a little careful. It's a dangerous game she's playing.

It annoys me that people pretend that these parties are other than they are. These parties simply couldn't happen without the complicity of the girls. If the girls didn't want to be there, if they didn't enjoy dressing up and going, if they didn't like flirting and pushing boundaries, they'd hardly attend! No one "tricks" them into any of this - they are well aware of the character and purpose of the party when they go, and that's why they go. If it was just about "getting acquainted" or "meeting interesting people" or whatever else we're expected to believe the motives are, there would hardly be a need for free alcohol, hardly be a need for dancing and loud music, hardly be a need to drive by the dorms and pick up carloads of chicks you've never met - in general the whole character of the party would be different. Any girl who claims she went to a frat party unaware of what it was for is either lying or collossally stupid.

In short, this IDS series is hopelessly onesided. For that reason, I think it is also counterproductive.

Nothing is going to be done about the rape "problem" as long as we're not playing fair. So let's call it like it is.

First - the character of frat parties is not going to change, so the Center for Women's Affairs can go ahead and forget that one. Girls get as much out of them as guys do; that's why they happen. Indeed, sex is just as much an essential ingredient of these parties for the girls as it is for the guys, so the Center for Women's Affairs can stop lying about that any time. Second - women are responsible for what they do while drunk, just as anyone is responsible for what he does while drunk. It is NOT safe for girls to go to parties full of drunk guys with sex on their minds. Girls need to be made aware of the risks - and that includes being frank with them about how difficult it is to prosecute a rape case under such circumstances. Third - rape is not a "special" crime, and due process therefore applies. If a girl wants her attacker prosecuted, then she has to go through the system just like any other crime victim. If you walk into a police station with a couple of scratches and say you got your ass kicked two weeks ago, but oops! you waited too long to report and now most of the evidence is gone, they're probably not going to take you very seriously. And rightly so: it is a waste of their valuable time to pursue hopeless cases. We do not want to live in a nation where people can be thrown in prison on hearsay - that's why there's due process. Rape cannot be tried without evidence, so like it or not, rape victims are going to have to cope long enough to go to the hospital and get the evidence put on record. Fourth - people falsely accused of rape suffer far worse than rape victims. It is therefore not in any way "insenstive" to tell this side of the story along with the victims' side. Let's make no bones about it - someone who falsely accuses someone of rape and gets away with it is much worse than an actual rapist. Society should treat them as such.

If the Center for Women's Affairs wants to do something useful, they need to work on emboldening rape victims to come forward in a timely manner. It also wouldn't hurt for them to stop lying about why girls go to frat parties so that girls can get honest advice about how to be safe there. "Campus culture" isn't something that men invented and women are victims of - especially at a school like IU that is solid majority female. Most importantly, they need to stop talking about crimes they cannot prove as though they were established facts. It is inappropriate for the IDS to be reporting on a campus rape "epidemic" if no one can even prove so much as a single rape on campus in the last four years. 43 reports of rape are just reports.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Not Even in Name

Mike Adams has another one of "those columns" of his on Townhall today. By which I mean "right idea, but probably for the wrong (read: religious) reasons." But I agree enough with the conclusion that I'm willing to take Ayn Rand's Barry Goldwater Escape Clause:

If he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours.

(If that isn't clear - here is more convincing evidence that Rand was a Goldwater supporter).

The basic purpose of the column in question is to argue that we should stop calling Democrats "liberals." I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I have already been engaged in this "act of self-censorship," as Dr. Adams puts it, for over 4 years now.

I admit, self-censorship of speech is a PC/Orwellian strategy, something I normally oppose. I continue, for example, to call black people "black," even though the "correct" term these days is "African American." Reason being - I never meant "black" in a prejudicial way, and changing my speech patterns would give the false impression that I believed I had. Likewise, I continue to call lame things "gay." Reason being - this IS offensive to gays, I guess, but if the shoe fits, wear it. It's a particular shade of meaning to "lame" that gets the moniker "gay," and that particular shade of meaning happens to fit pretty well with some general identifying behaviors of gay people. Not all of them, you undertstand - I'm making a generalization here. I could self-censor my speech and choose another term so as not to offend - except that I have the feeling that the people taking offense are too quick to do so. I've never, for example, complained that I was offended when people say white people can't dance. That's because in general it seems to be true that we're not as good at it as blacks and Latinos. Getting offended hardly changes the truth of the situation, and adult gays should be able to roll with the punches the same way we straight white guys do.

But I think the term "liberal" does actual damage. It allows bad people to simplify the political debate in dangerous ways. Furthermore, the use of the term "liberal" to refer to socialists is itself Orwellian. It's the prototypical example, in fact - in the sense that we're calling labeling something as its opposite for the purpose of confusing people. Orwell wrote his books in large part because of Stalinist propaganda claiming that Russians, of all people, were "freer" than those living in the West.

I will have lost most readers by this point on two objections. First, that Democrats are not "socialists." Ah, but they are! Let me return to that point in a minute. The second is linguistic - namely that if everyone uses a term in a particular way, then isn't that ipso facto what it means?

Well, right. To a great extent, that's true. Never mind that "sinister" comes from the Latin word for "left," and that its current meaning arises in large part from traditional mistrust of lefthanders, no one is aware of the history when they learn the term, so this is harmless. People simply learn that that string of syllables/phonemes refers to shadowy, malicious things ... and so it does.

In the case of "liberal," however, the etymology is clear at the point of use. We're not just "vaguely aware" that "liberal" is etymologically related to "liberty" and "liberation" and "libertine," we actually expect it to have something to do with freedom. After all, in its technical sense - as used in, say, the fields of law or economics - it retains this sense. A "liberal trade policy" is one relatively free of tariffs and other restrictions, for example. More to the point, you frequently hear people say that they're "liberal" because they believe in individual freedom - when the Democrats believe in no such thing. So while it's true in general that etymology is not a reliable predictor of modern meaning, in this case it happens to be. That's why the strategy of socialists labeling themselves "liberals" actually works, and why we have absurd situations like something I saw recently in the comments section on Pharyngula, in which a commenter proclaims that universal healthcare is "absolutely necessary" for freedom. Clearly, this person has no idea what "freedom" means, and that is due in no small part to the fact that the socialists have successfully confused him by labeling themselves "liberals."

Alright, but aren't "soclialists" people on the road to Communism - they advocate state control of the economy for the purpose of social engineering and establishing "social justice?" Do the Democrats qualify?

Absolutely they do. Granted, the Democrats are fairly mild socialists if you take a global perspective. Compared to "Old" Labour, or the SPD, or Sweden's Socialdemokraterna, or the Liberal Party of Canada (see what I mean!!!), the Democrats are mostly harmless. But that's a bit like saying that you're poor because you don't make as much money as Warran Buffet. Just because you're less socialist than some other dyed-in-the-wools doesn't make you "non-socialist." I'm sure there's a name for that particular fallacy (does this fall under false dichotomy, I wonder?), but I'm too lazy to look it up.

In any case, take a look at what Democrats stand for. They want universal healthcare coverage. That is, they think it's the government's job to pay people's medical bills. They want Social Security "fixed, not privatized." Again, because they think it's the government's job to save money for people. They favor greater welfare spending, including spending on children who don't need it. They oppose privatization of ultilities. They believe in trade barriers. They're pro-union. They constantly want to increase the minimum wage (notice that it's not even a question whether we should have a minimum wage - they think it's immoral not to support ever greater increases on it). They like seatbelt laws, smoking bans, the War on Drugs, bans on transfats and a thousand other instrusions into our daily decisionmaking rights. They're generally enemies of free speech - favoring hate speech codes, campaign finance reform (don't be fooled by the "McCain" on that bill - the Dems outvoted Republicans on it by a significant margin), bans on public prayer, anti-discrimination laws, etc. This is in general the profile of a party that believes that the government can and should intervene in human affairs to "engineer" a better society. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of socialism. The only thing their platform is missing, in fact, to make them a Scandinavian-style socialist party is advocating that the government nationalize key industries. That is to their credit - but it doesn't make me feel any better about all the rest of it.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's not as though the Republicans are great beacons of liberty for their part. But I'm also not advocating calling Republicans "liberals." (Tellingly - neither are they. Repbulicans are in general more honest than Democrats about what their intentions are, I think. They call themselves "conservatives," and that is indeed what they are.) I don't think that label fits either major party. If it fits any American political party - it fits the Libertarians. Unfortunately, "liberal" was already taken by 1972 when the "Libertarian" party was founded, and so the name was unavailable.

Well I've been trying to take it back. I consider myself a "classical liberal." (Ideally, I wouldn't need the "classical" modifier, but that's my small concession to language consensus.) And I do not consider ANY Democrat a "liberal." Liberals are people who believe in maximal individual freedom. That means "free to do whatever you want so long as you do not violate the rights of others." They are people who want to leave the government out of people's decision-making processes. They are people who believe in personal responsibility (which means you take the consequences for your own boneheaded decisions without running crying to the taxpayers to bail you out every time - and also that you provide for yourself without asking other people to do it for you). They are people who believe that the Constitution is a contract that must be fulfilled as written. It doesn't mean anything if we can read into it anything we want - like Roe v. Wade's faux "right to privacy."

The Democrats are none of these things. In fact, they are the opposite of these things. It is simply inaccurate to call them "liberals," and so I have been avoiding doing it for over 4 years now. My friends laugh at me when I call them "soclialists" (even though that is what they are), I suppose because the term "socialist" is so charged from the Cold War that it means something more extreme now than it used to. So fair enough - I'll settle for just calling them "leftists." I don't see how anyone can quarrel with that.

As for the Mike Adams column - well, go have a read for yourself. It had the right idea, but for all the wrong reasons. I could nitpick it to death, but why don't I not and say I did. The bottom line is that he wants to say that Republicans are more "liberal" than Democrats. I'm ... not so sure. It's true that they generally are on economic issues, but being for a freer economy than the Dems want is hardly the same thing as being for a free economy (see "Warren Buffet Fallacy" above). In any case, we can all agree that Republicans are quite controlling when it comes to social issues - are, in fact, guilty of some attempted social engineering of their own.

No, America doesn't really have a "liberal" party. So I agree with Mike Adams when he suggests we should stop pretending like it did. Stop calling Democrats "liberals" 'cause they're anything but.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Pretty Good Protection

This article, which was linked on Slashdot this morning, is a nice kick in the pants to me to start encrypting my email again(?). Some time ago, one of my professors started insisting on this - but while it's nice for Mac, which he used, it's kind of a pain for Linux.

But "kind of a pain" is still a good tradeoff if it means giving the government goons grief and forcing them to get a public warrant if they want to read my email. Not that anyone probably wants to read MY email (well, not YET anyway - mwahhaha), but it's the principle of the thing.

The case in question is United States v. Warshak, and the issue is that the government subpoenaed an ISP to require it to turn over user account information, including the contents of emails stored on the server. The ISP was also barred from informing its customers. So Warshak, one of the targets of the investigation, sued once he found out.

The decision reached was that whether or not ISP customers have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" under the terms of the Fourth Amendment depends on the agreements they sign when they accept service. And since most ISPs include provisions in their contracts which allow them to datamine your mail to a certain degree, it's likely that a "reasonable expectation of privacy" doesn't exist for most ISP customers. Moral of the story: DOWNLOAD YOUR EMAIL!!!

Linux users hardly need to be told - but the Best Email Client in the World ™ is Mutt, and it prompts you to download your mails every time you log out. Very convenient. As a result, I've long (well, OK, 4 months...) been in the habit of keeping my school mail account clean. Not much I can do about Yahoo! without paying their fee, and Gmail is a lost cause, of course - so I try not to have anything terribly important sent there.

Or is there?

Well, in fact there is - at least as far as Gmail is concerned. You can encrypt your mail, and insist that people send encrypted mails to you.

Thanks to folk hero Philip Zimmerman, encryption is freely available to all - despite the best efforts of the US government to jail him for teaching the world how to do it in the early 1990s. It's called "PGP," for "pretty good privacy." As the name implies - it's hardly perfect. But it's close enough to perfect for most ordinary users. Unless you're the head of a shadowy organization, you're probably not worth the time and resources it would take the government to crack your encryption code, so you can feel 99% safe with PGP.Even if they do randomly decide you're worth it, it's a giant pain for them. It would be easier for them just to subpoena your home machine and get the private key themselves.

The way it works is simple. You download a program that encrypts stuff. This program encrypts it in such a clever way that you need two encryption keys to deal with it: a public key and a private key. As the name suggests, the public key is something that you make available on your website (or, erm, more accurately, you publish it on a website whose raison d'etre is publishing such things) - and when people want to send you encrypted mail, they encrypt their mail with this key. The private key is for DEcrypting the mail - and only you have that. The beauty of PGP is that the private key can't be deduced from the public key. That's why it works: because you can safely publish the public key - the one used to encrypt the stuff sent to you - without fear that someone could use it to crack the code to decrypting your mail. That's why there's the "G" in "PGP."

Using PGP, the only thing that ever shows up on the server is a bunch of gibberish. And ALL mail goes through a server eventually.

My thoughts on the actual court case. Personally, it doesn't bother me that much that there's no "reasonable expectation of privacy" for mails stored on a public server. In fact, I think that's the right interpretation. The right to privacy is largely invented in the first place. It's not specifically enumerated in the Constitution - we just sort of assume that the Founders intended for there to be such a thing but didn't go to too much trouble to write it out because - well, in the 1790s spying technology wasn't what it is today. So we have to be careful reading too much privacy protection into the Constitution - because reading things in that aren't specifically written, no matter how good your intentions, sets a precedent for reading other nasty things into it. So I'm reasonably comfortable with the onus being on me to take steps to keep my information private. I just need to know that, having taken the steps, the government is required to respect my limits - and this case doesn't seem to threaten that in any way.

Servers are someone else's property - and I either use their service for free (Yahoo! and Gmail) or I pay them for it (IUmail). In either case, it's obvious that I use their sevice on their terms. If they're mining my mail, I'm not happy about it, but as long as they told me, I can take my own independent steps to protect my information. And that's all this case says: ISPs have to specify how private your personal mail really is, and you have to abide by their terms when using their server. Fair enough.

As for the "reasonable expectation of privacy," I think about all that needs to be said about that is that wherever you're storing your mail - if not on your home computer, I mean - there's some slob administrator in his pyjamas who can read it whenever he likes. Of course, it's sort of unethical for him to do it - but c'mon! That doesn't mean the geeks that maintain Yahoo! don't occasionally sneak a peek at what you're writing just for laughs. THAT's about as safe as your mail is. Not to mention - ANY hacker worth his salt can intercept mail in transmission. So the word to the wise is DO NOT count on the fact that no one is reading your email! Probably no one is (just think of the sheer volume of all the mail in the world - then ponder your own insignificance in the scheme of things: you're no James Bond) - but you can't COUNT on that fact. So best not to email your pals the finer details of your plans to murder your wife. And best not to assume the government can't get at your email - because really, it can.

Unless you're using PGP.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

This Guy Again

Warren Buffet continues to annoy me. Right now he's grousing that he doesn't pay enough taxes. Apparently, he gets by with only 17.7% in taxes while some lesser-paid employees at his firm (such as his presumably buxom secretary) fork over 30%. His solution to this injustice (as injustice it surely is)? Tax Me More.

What an asinine political character Buffet is! If he thinks there's an inequality in the tax code - and apparently, there is - then shouldn't he really be advocating rolling back his secretary's taxes rather than pushing to increase his own? I mean, 30% is no trivial sum at any income level. Why does he want to keep his secretary paying this punitive rate on her labor?

But no, heartless Buffet would rather simply up his own ante - which is surely peanuts to a guy who owns billions, but only pays taxes on tens of millions of it. Bumping his tax bracket up another 10% makes little difference to him. But to his hard-working secretary, a 10% pay increase would no doubt mean a great deal. After all, she's earning in the tens of thousands, not the tens of millions. Her necessities expenses eat up most of her budget - which is certainly not the case with Buffet.

More to the point, there is really nothing stopping Buffet from correcting this "injustice" himself. If he wants to pay more in taxes but the mean ol' government won't let him, then why can't just just give what he would have paid in taxes back to his employees in bonuses? He could have a charitable "my evil tax break" bonus and share the wealth a bit at Christmas, no? Take the $4.6million extra a year he thinks he should be taxed, divide it by the number of "middle-" or "working-" class people he employs, and give them all their share? Better yet, in this fabulous age of the spectacular calculator known as the home computer, he could crank out some C++ and write a program to figure out how much each of his employees would save if the government lowered their marginal rates to 17.7% and ... pay them that much out of his own pocket. Put, in other words, his goddamned money where his mealy mouth is.

Buffet is right that rich people shouldn't be in lower tax brackets. But then, neither should poor people. Neither should ANYONE pay a different rate of taxes just because they earn more or less. We all sail on this ship, and we all take advantage of its services. It is immoral to tax anyone at a different rate than anyone else for the same benefits of citizenship.

Probably, in fact, we shouldn't have an income tax at all. One interesting alternative is the so-called Fair Tax - a national sales tax that would replace income taxes altogether. That way, the people who use the system the most (in terms of purchasing the most) really would be taxed the most. But - crucially - everyone would be taxed at the same rate. This has the twin benefits of (a) being considerably more ethical than our current system of singling out people based on relative productivity and (b) it would really hammer home just how expensive the welfare state is; taxes would be transparent again.

I haven't formed a fixed opinion on the Fair Tax yet. I prefer to read the book first.

But here is something that I think all fair-minded people can agree on. Taxes should NOT be arbitrary. They should NOT be the kind of thing that can be raised and lowered at the whim of the govenment. Taxes should be fair, and they should be limited, and the government should have to operate within those limits. After all, we're talking about taking money from people who earned it and giving it to people who didn't to dispose of as they see fit. To the extent that they spend it on funding public arts, paying for a senseless war on drugs, enforcing smoking bans, and giving it away for free in the form of welfare payments to unproductive people who cannot be bothered to work just to buy their votes, they are abusing their power. The Constitution probably ought to have something to say about that.

But this isn't a post about that. This is a post about "Tax Me More." Astute readers will have noticed that the link above goes to an interesting suggestion (not just a cheap joke - this has actually been tried in several states including Kansas, Arkansas and Montana) - that we could have a national voluntary "tax me more" fund to allow hypocrites like Warren Buffet the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. The plan is simple: anyone who publicly favors raising taxes has the opportunity to pay more on their own reconnaissance into a voluntary fund. So you get your tax bill, and if you're one of those people who thinks we should raise taxes, and you really believe in what you say, you are free to write the government a check. Call it a charitable donation. That way, you can do your part to pay for the programs you think are necessary without forcing anyone else to fund your bullshit.

Now, the leftists will whine and carry on about this because, they'll say, "greedy" people will opt not to pay any more at all, and "good" people will instead choose to give their surplus to charity. But that is the whole bleeding point: charity does a better job caring for the poor and everyone bloody knows it. People who wish to do "good" do not voluntarily give their money to the government, which invariably makes a mess of it. Which is why, for cryin' out loud, people don't like paying taxes!!! It isn't (in most cases) because they're "greedy," it's because they resent - with very good reason - being forced to give up a percentage of what they earn to poorly-implemented crackpot schemes. Given the choice, who wouldn't give to charity? But the main thrust here is that people should be given the choice. Aside from what is necessary to support the essential services of government (like the police, the court system and the military), people should not be forced to give up their hard-earned money at all.

Predictably, the Arkansas "Tax Me More" fund failed to raise much more than $2000. And that is because - shocking as this may be to Bill Clinton and ilk - most people actually do resent paying taxes. Talk is cheap. It's easy to talk about how you like to pay taxes; it's how much you pay when they're voluntary that defines your real commitment. It's easy to talk about caring and sharing and helping people when it's other people's money you're doing it with; what makes you a moral person is how much of your own money you're willing to put to the programs you advocate.

I would like to make a humble prediction how much Warren Buffet is willing to put into a "Tax Me More" fund: $0.0million.