On Democracy.io: …I don’t get it.

Alex Howard reported yesterday on the release of Democracy.io, a sleek new tool for emailing members of Congress.  It’s a nice tool, built with the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based on open datasets created by the Sunlight Foundation.

I hate to sound like a broken record here, but… I don’t get it.

Here’s Sina Khanifar, in an interview with Alex Howard (emphasis added):

“Advocacy organizations that can afford it have long had access to tools for delivering bulk constituent messages, but those solutions are expensive and generally inaccessible for regular citizens. Democracy.io helps fill that gap by giving people an easy way to have their voices are heard in Washington.”

What’s the use-case here? Who are these “regular citizens” that want to share their thoughts and opinions with members of Congress unprompted by advocacy organizations?  Where are they getting their information from, and what’s prompting them to write these digital letters?

The literature on political mobilization is pretty clear on this point: people are far more likely to partake in political activity when they are asked to do so.  Whether that’s donating money, knocking on doors, showing up to a hearing, or writing a letter, we tend to take political action because someone we trust/generally agree with asked us to do so.

Participating-because-we-were-asked is sometimes treated as non-“organic,” not as democratically healthy as spontaneous citizen participation that comes out of the civic ether.  But let’s be real for a second: it takes a very particular type of person to walk through life believing that (1) they have all the answers, (2) Congress needs to hear those answers, and (3) writing an e-mail ought to do the trick.  On season 1 of Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope referred to it as “people caring loudly at me.”

This isn’t to say that Democracy.io isn’t nice tech.  It appears to be well-designed.  Some future, nascent social movements might be able to deploy this tool on a mass scale, bypassing software vendors that they can’t afford.  The codebase might be combined with something else to massively simplify some genuinely hard problems.

But, at least in its current form… I don’t get it.  Citizen participation tends to be organized and mediated through networked advocacy groups.  Those groups face a thousand different problems, some small, some big.  How did simplifying the process for emailing congress out-of-the-blue rise to the top of the list?

“No Interracial Couples”: On religious liberty in Indiana

Even as an atheist, I strongly support the preservation of religious freedom from most kinds of state intrusion.

You should be able to wear your religious head covering of choice, even in driver’s license photos. Prisons should provide kosher or halal meals and allow prisoners to keep their beards. Native American tribes that use peyote in their traditional religious ceremonies should be exempted from the laws against that substance. Thankfully, this norm is generally and increasingly used to settle these questions.

One major problem with the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, is that it also includes disputes that are exclusively between private parties. Section 9 reads, in part:

A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.

This means that it will not only give heft to plaintiffs who seek to overturn state actions that substantially burden religion. It will also apply to civil actions between private citizens — including companies — giving a potential fig leaf defense to obviously noxious and discriminatory behavior.

The cliche example floating around is the bakeshop being forced to make a wedding cake for gay couples despite religious objections to the wedding itself. There are far, far more substantial issues in play than dessert, but even if we keep it at the level of the admittedly less-than-life-or-death, it’s easy to see the problems here.

Imagine a Christian bakeshop that refused to bake a cake for a Jewish or Muslim wedding. Imagine that’s it’s someone who sincerely objects to interracial marriage, on religious grounds — and yes, while this was far more common half a century ago, I’m sorry to report that these people still exist.

While racial animus is less accepted today, it’s still sincerely held by many and religiously grounded for some. Just because that’s passé and anti-gay sentiment is still held by a substantial portion of the population, is the legal and moral question any different? Is the discriminatory potential — and, let’s be frank, intention — clear yet?

Imagine bakeries with “No Interracial Couples” signs in their windows, or even an implicit policy to that effect. Offended yet? Even though this might be motivated by sincere religious belief? Would you object to a law that tells the victims of such discrimination that state courts are likely closed to them?1)The obvious intent and far more likely outcome of this law is to gut local ordinances that provide LGBTQ protections. Yet it would at least re-open the question of racial and religious discrimination in the context of any applicable state laws. Religiously-motivated racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination might be permitted by state law, at least in some contexts, and we wouldn’t know until the courts sorted it out. In less life-or-death contexts, such as refusing to bake a cake for a Jewish wedding, some judges might find the state interest to be insufficiently compelling. Do you want to tell that couple, “It’s federal court or bust.”? I sure don’t. My broader point, however, is obviously that this provides an analogy, bringing the battles of the mid-20th Century to bear on today’s civil rights battle. Good, that means you’re a decent human being.

Now, let’s get out of the bakeshop, because this will likely grant a hall pass for discrimination in far more serious contexts.

There is no federal protection for LGBTQ folks and no statewide protection in Indiana. Even in the towns where there are protections, however, this bill essentially guts those — a transparent intent behind the bill.

Thus, imagine hoteliers turning away LGBTQ couples. In the context of racial discrimination, this was decided 51 years ago, but it’s now an open question in Indiana.

Imagine realtors refusing to work with people whose lifestyles they find morally objectionable. Imagine bankers turning down loan applicants and even would-be account holders. Imagine teachers refusing to meet with parents in same-sex relationships.

All of these might now be legally sanctioned as long as they are motivated by religious (rather than secular) animus.

These acts of discrimination need not even be grounded in religious tenets that are central to one’s faith. The act clarifies:

Sec. 5. As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.

Talk about a free pass. Any exercise of religion counts, even if it’s as transparently silly as a Pastafarian head covering — but, you know, used for discriminatory rather than parodic effect.

This means that, except where state or federal law provides otherwise, even the thinnest veneer of religious objection will excuse wanton, explicit discrimination. It also means that these religious fig leaves will also force a plaintiff and/or the state to re-establish how compelling the state interest is in all the laws that ban discrimination.

No wonder thirty legal scholars signed a letter opposing the bill (pdf). They warn that the law will

likely create confusion, conflict, and a wave of litigation that will threaten the clarity of religious liberty rights in Indiana while undermining the state’s ability to enforce other compelling interests. This confusion and conflict will increasingly take the form of private actors, such as employers, landlords, small business owners, or corporations, taking the law into their own hands and acting, in ways that violate generally applicable laws on the grounds that they have a religious justification for doing so. Members of the public will then be asked to bear the cost of their employer’s, their landlord’s, their local shopkeeper’s, or a police officer’s private religious beliefs.

In other words, this bill will wreak havoc on the legal order in the state of Indiana, and the stakes are heck of a lot bigger than wedding cakes.

The only good news about this bill is the backlash it has engendered. Indiana is getting pushback from athletes, celebrities, and CEOs — but also sports organizations like the Pacers, the NCAA, and even NASCAR. NASCAR!

Despite this backlash, however, the Arkansas legislature has just put a very similar bill on the desk of Governor Asa Hutchinson. We will soon know whether the pull of the reactionary right outweighs the voices for equity, to say nothing of the rapidly growing chorus of opponents in the business world.

Arkansas-based Walmart — which may make more money from both homophobes and from LGBTQ people than any other company in the country — has weighed in against that state’s bill. If it passes, though, I wonder if they’ll try to find a way to argue that their religion forbids collective bargaining.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The obvious intent and far more likely outcome of this law is to gut local ordinances that provide LGBTQ protections. Yet it would at least re-open the question of racial and religious discrimination in the context of any applicable state laws. Religiously-motivated racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination might be permitted by state law, at least in some contexts, and we wouldn’t know until the courts sorted it out. In less life-or-death contexts, such as refusing to bake a cake for a Jewish wedding, some judges might find the state interest to be insufficiently compelling. Do you want to tell that couple, “It’s federal court or bust.”? I sure don’t. My broader point, however, is obviously that this provides an analogy, bringing the battles of the mid-20th Century to bear on today’s civil rights battle.

How to Solve the Vaccination Problem: Two Politically Feasible Proposals

My last post, “Is It Constitutional and Desirable to Require Vaccinations?“, asked serious questions about what at this rate is still probably not necessary. Here, I make two proposals that would be good policy right now, and would also be politically palatable.

After all, roughly 92% of American children are getting their MMR vaccine. How do we deal with the other 8%? This matters to everyone because vaccines are not 100% effective, and infants and some other folks can’t get vaccines for health reasons.

1. Eliminate, or at least harden, non-medical exemptions for school students

There are already two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, that only accept medical exemptions for public schools — not even religious exemptions. Little wonder, then, that Mississippi has a 99.7% MMR vaccination rate among kindergartners. It has been more than 20 years since either state had a case of measles.

This is good policy, and it should be adopted by the other 48 states. If your personal or religious beliefs are so strong that you insist on ignoring the advice of the collective, virtually unanimous opinion of medicine writ large, fine. You have to find another way to educate your children, at your own expense.

There is a bill in the California state legislature to do exactly this.

It’s getting some pushback from vaccine fear mongers, of course, but also from libertarian types. Here’s the thing, though: You don’t get to take advantage of a public service,  provided at public expense, and then tell the body politic that some very reasonable conditions placed on that service are a violation of your individual liberty.

It’s against policy to smoke anywhere on a K-12 campus in most if not all states — including in North Carolina, for G-d’s sake — and this infringement of liberty has come about with broad if grudging acceptance even among the gravelly-voiced crowd.

If you believe in this extreme of a version of personal liberty, you’re probably a follower (at least indirectly) of Ayn Rand. So take that reasoning to its conclusion. Rand didn’t even think public schools should exist. Until we abolish public schools and live in an objectivist utopia, then, there are just some times — from vaccines to seat belts to food safety inspections — that your liberty to do things “your way” might be curtailed.

Again: It’s constitutional to require vaccines, period, on penalty of a sizable fine. Requiring vaccines as a condition of using a public service? Sorry, not a violation of your basic rights.

But, you might say: What about private schools? Won’t all these well-off anti-vax families just pony up to send their kids elsewhere? A number surely will. The state should therefore also make private schools publicize their vaccination policies, exemption rates, and number of confirmed cases of vaccine-preventable diseases per year for the last five years. They should have to share this, in writing, with all current students’ parents and with any potential new students’ families.

A number of softer-hearted souls have proposed merely hardening the rules on personal exemptions — making it harder for parents to get the forms, making them resubmit every year, making them complete online learning modules, and so on. This has been partially effective, but it does not go far enough in my view.

“Resisting vaccination isn’t a matter of laziness; it’s actually time-consuming and expensive,” writes Whet Moser. Which means the same kind of parent who clings to anti-vax believes is also the kind of parent who will do “anything” for their kid. (Except, you know, make the single easiest decision a parent can make.) Instead of daring these folks to jump through more hoops, just keep the kids out of public schools, period.

If you want to compromise on the religious exemption, that is more reasonable — or, at least, less subject to the whims of changing opinions. I would, however, add a mechanism for sniffing out sham churches set up for this purpose.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to give on even this point, however. We have all sorts of rules in public schools that might conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, from mixed-gender classrooms to not letting kids get out of biology class because they don’t believe in evolution. If parents want something different on these counts, they have to find a school that meets their beliefs, and putting vaccinations on this list is perfectly reasonable.

2. Medical Isolation

Many people are talking about school policy changes, but I’m also concerned about infection at the doctor’s office — where you’ll find a disproportionately large share of infants and immunity-compromised children.

Thus, I propose that all medical offices have to post their vaccination policies prominently, and those caught not sticking to theirs are subject to a serious fine.

Imagine walking into the office and seeing this:

Statement of Office Policy on Vaccinations

XThis office only accepts patients that are up to date on their vaccinations (barring medical exemptions), and we verify.
This office only accepts patients that are up to date on their vaccinations (barring medical exemptions), but we do not verify.
X(If either of the above is checked) This office has after-hours "catch up" vaccinations.
This office accepts patients regardless of their vaccination status.

In today’s climate, that would be very reassuring to see. And if I make an appointment, show up, and instead it’s Box 4 that’s checked? My kid and I are going elsewhere.

If I discover this, I should leave, and I shouldn’t be forced to pay a cancellation fee. Such an office should also have to get written assent to this choice from all patients before they can bill for dollar one.

Box 2 would probably work well enough as long as patients/parents have to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury. Which brings up another important point: Verification would work best if states require that all immunizations be submitted to the state database. Vaccinating doctors are not required to submit this information in some states, such as (I’m very sorry to see) California, so it would be a good bit of extra work to be a Box 1 office.

I would probably be comfortable taking my child to a Box 2 medical office, but he’s 10, vaccinated, and healthy. If I had an infant or other especially vulnerable child, though, I’d really try to find a verified-immunization office.

It would be hard to find a doctor who’s willing to advertise to their patients that the unvaccinated are explicitly welcome in their office. Sure, even the occasional anti-vax quacks can be found, but it’s becoming hard to find doctors who will even see anti-vax parents. (Even without a mandate, if I were a doctor, I’d post a prominent “must be vaccinated” notice in my office, and I suspect we’ll start to see this soon in any case.)

So that’s my proposal: No public school without vaccinations or a valid medical excuse, and mandatory notice about medical office policies.

If you’re not vaccinating your children, you’re free-riding on herd immunity (to say nothing of harming your own child!), and the herd should try to limit the damage that your adorable little disease vector can do to the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is It Constitutional and Desirable to Require Vaccinations?

(This is the first of two posts, in which I ask if it’s desirable and constitutional to require vaccinations as a matter of law. My more pragmatic policy proposals are in part two.)

As with many others, I’ve been on an anti-anti-vax rampage on social media.

(I should perhaps rethink my strategy, but it’s not clear that there is a good strategy for dealing with someone once they’re in that camp. It’s not the first such example, either. How do you argue with a Scientologist? How do you convince congressional Republicans that we won’t eliminate the deficit without either raising taxes or seriously harming the economy? There aren’t a lot of good solutions here.)

Thus, one of my more libertarian friends (who gets all her kids’ shots, thank G-d, but who thinks you should use an alternative vaccination schedule that delays vaccinations) posted on my wall to ask if I would really support an infringement on individual liberty in the form of forcing folks to get vaccinated.

To which I say: Hell yes! I would support it, and it would even be constitutional. Which is not the same thing as supporting such a policy as politically pragmatic — but I have an answer for that, too.

As for my personal preference for whether we should force people to get vaccines against airborne pathogens — when they have been proven safe and effective, winning near-universal support among medical experts: Yes, I do want to live in that world.

I suppose I’d allow an exemption for truly anti-modern-culture isolationists who agree to keep away from broader society. (The Amish seem not to qualify on either count, by the way, with the majority getting vaccinated AND their willingness to participate in commerce with outsiders. Zippers no, shots mostly yes. Who knew?))

But in the general population — among those healthy enough to be vaccinated, of course — yes, I would support forcing folks to get their shots. If you’re not willing, I would gladly levy a stiff fine. (I mean, I’m not proposing that we lock unvaccinated families in a tent inside a hospital in Newark where they have to poop in a bucket or anything. That would be inhumane.) This would be especially effective if it had a high ceiling and explicit instructions to judges that it should be proportional to income — since, you know, being an anti-vaxxer seems primarily to be a disease of privilege.

The Supremes ruled on this over a century ago, by the way, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. In 1905, the court ruled that Massachusetts was within its power to fine Jacobson five dollars (equivalent to roughly $130 today) for failing to get vaccinated, at zero cost to himself, against smallpox.

The Wikipedia article is mostly accurate — relative to my skim of the case (IANAL, as always) — but read some of what the Supremes have to say on the matter. Pretty convincing, and definitive, stuff:

… the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.1)Court footnote 7

Not a lot of wiggle room left there. Watch them apply it to this specific question:

Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members. It is to be observed that when the regulation in question was adopted smallpox, according to the recitals in the regulation adopted by the board of health, was prevalent to some extent in the city of Cambridge, and the disease was increasing. If such was the situation,—and nothing is asserted or appears in the record to the contrary,—if we are to attach, any value whatever to the knowledge which, it is safe to affirm, in common to all civilized peoples touching smallpox and the methods most usually employed to eradicate that disease, it cannot be adjudged that the present regulation of the board of health was not necessary in order to protect the public health and secure the public safety. …

 

If the mode adopted by the commonwealth of Massachusetts for the protection of its local communities against smallpox proved to be distressing, inconvenient, or objectionable to some,—if nothing more could be reasonably affirmed of the statute in question,—the answer is that it was the duty of the constituted authorities primarily to keep in view the welfare, comfort, and safety of the many, and not permit the interests of the many to be subordinated to the wishes or convenience of the few.2)Court footnote 8

The court goes on, at length, in a way that might make the Ayn Rand followers of the world a bit uncomfortable. I feel no obligation to assuage their feelings, however. If what you’re doing might harm or kill me, the state has a right to stop you from doing it — even if it’s something as banal as forcing restaurant employees to wash their hands. Ditto foolish self-harm, such as with seat belt and helmet laws.

The decision is also a fantastic read for some historical context on exactly how far back the consensus on vaccines really reaches. For instance:

[Jacobson’s arguments] in the main seem to have had no purpose except to state the general theory of those of the medical profession who attach little or no value to vaccination as a means of preventing the spread of smallpox, or who think that vaccination causes other diseases of the body. What everybody knows the court must know, and therefore the state court judicially knew, as this court knows, that an opposite theory accords with the common belief, and is maintained by high medical authority.3)Court footnote 10

It is therefore the law of the land that, when confronted with a deadly infectious disease that is reliably and safely vaccinated against, a state or municipality may affirmatively compel the populace to be immunized.

This has been the definitive law of the land for 110 years, and the medical consensus behind — and safety of — vaccines has only increased.

This decision is many times more remarkable because it is from an era (the start of the Lochner era — Jacobson was published just two months before Lochner v New York) where the Court had a much, much more restricted view of what the state is allowed to do under the Constitution. This is the same session when the court held it unconstitutional for a state to tell employers how many hours a worker could work, and yet it held mandatory inoculation against deadly disease to be fully constitutional and consistent with American values.

I agree on both counts — constitutionality and consistency with our values. This is doubly so when it comes to children. They’re not your property. If you starve them or assault them or psychologically torment them, the state can and should intervene.

On the affirmative side, you have to send them to school or educate them in some comparable way, period; the value of education is not up for debate. When parents won’t do what’s demonstrably in a child’s best interests, the state can intervene and — when the risk is serious — should seriously consider doing so.

Thankfully, there are less invasive policy choices that would likely lead to the same desirable outcome of a return to near-100% childhood vaccination. That is the subject of my next post.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Court footnote 7
2. Court footnote 8
3. Court footnote 10

The Day We Fight Back, Perspective, and The Long Game

Tuesday this week was The Day We Fight Back.  Thursday this week there was a massive snowstorm up and down the East Coast.  The two may have more in common than you might think.

The Day We Fight Back was a day-of-action protesting government snooping.  Evoking memories of the SOPA “blackout” day of action, a coalition of 6,000 websites added a banner (see below) urging visitors to take action against NSA surveillance.  The single day of action generated half a million emails to legislators, 89,000 phone calls, and over 300,000 petition signatures.  …Not bad for a day’s work.

boingboing DWFB

 

The snowstorm, meanwhile, was the “biggest storm since Snowmaggedon in DC.”  We got about 8″ of snow in my neighborhood.  Classes were cancelled. The government closed down. My dog loved it (see below).  But it didn’t live up to the multiple feet of snow that fell on DC back in 2010.  It was just a really big snowstorm. Nothing to see here, move along.

photo (41)

Both the protest and the snowstorm were treated as “the largest [rare event] since [EPIC event].”  That’s true, but the framing also detracts from thinking about their overall impact.

The online reaction to the protest has been pretty muted.  The New York Times Bits Blog labeled it “The Day the Internet Didn’t Fight Back.” The Verge posted a story titled “Not many of us actually fought on The Day We Fight Back.” TechCrunch offered a (pretty cool) side-by-side comparison, “SOPA vs NSA Protests, In Pictures.”

All of these articles return to a common refrain: this just wasn’t as EPIC as the SOPA Blackout.  Where was Google? Where was Wikipedia? The New York Times piece even concludes with some Reddit-snark: “Online petitions. The very least you can do, without doing nothing.”*

It’s true, The Day We Fight Back was no SOPA blackout.  But should we have expected it to be?  As event co-organizer David Segal from Demand Progress put it, “To mark all organizing a success or failure by measuring it against the single biggest online activist moment ever is ridiculous.”

There were (at least) three important differences between the SOPA moment and The Day We Fight Back.

(1) SOPA was defense, The Day We Fight Back was offense. When the SOPA blackout happened, some awful legislation was imminent.  The Day We Fight Back calls on Congress to support The USA Freedom Act and oppose the FISA Improvements Act.  Neither of these bills are facing a vote right now.  It is a lot harder to galvanize a public to stop something bad than it is to support something good.

(2) SOPA was a direct threat to major Internet companies.  NSA surveillance is an indirect threat. The Stop Online Piracy Act was a threat to Google and Wikipedia themselves.  It was a power-play by Hollywood to turn the Internet into a giant copyright-enforcement engine.  Organizing against SOPA didn’t happen overnight either.  But one reason why TechCrunch’s side-by-side photos showed more participation from big websites during the SOPA blackout was because those websites had more directly at stake.

(3) SOPA was first, and that yields an innovation edge. The sheer scale of the SOPA blackout makes everything else look smaller by comparison.  I wrote about this in my chapter of Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up To Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet.  Part of the blackout’s effectiveness came from it never having been done before.  Once “we’ve fought back” one time, targets begin to adapt and the power of the tactic slowly dulls.

The point here is that, like judging every big snowstorm against Snowpocalypse (or every hurricane against Katrina), judging a massive day of action against the SOPA blackout will obscure the impact of the action itself.

The Day We Fight Back wasn’t supposed to be as large as the SOPA Blackout.  And even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had the same direct impact, because getting Congress to pass a proposed law doesn’t happen as fast as getting Congress to abandon a proposed law.  The Day We Fight Back was part of a longer campaign.  It yielded mass attention, and increased cohesion within a gigantic, cross-partisan coalition, and it built a list of committed supporters who can be contacted for future actions.

And that’s the real point about online petitions.  Sure, they can be “the very least you can do without doing nothing.”  But they can also be a damn good initial entry point into the broader campaign.  555,000 people took action through their system on Tuesday.  That’s 555,000 people who have signaled their interest and can be re-engaged for later actions.

Active issue publics don’t appear overnight.  They don’t rove the digital terrain, waiting to ride in and save the day.  They are built through time, action, and effort.

The real question to ask about The Day We Fight Back isn’t “how does it compare to the SOPA blackout.”  The real question to ask is “so, what’s next?”

 

 

*Okay I’ll admit it, that’s a pretty good line.

The Real Threat to the US Economy

In the majority of media coverage about the shutdown and debt ceiling, the press has bent over backward to imply that there is plenty of blame to go around. This is false equivalency of the highest order, and I’m here to correct the record.

The number one threat to the US and world economy is congressional Republicans and, by implication, the reactionary extremist voters who put them in power. They’re about to blow up the financial system in vengeance because they lost the presidential election — and this largely over a policy first implemented by their own presidential candidate.

Today, we learn that House Republicans are still clinging to proposals to scale back the ACA. For the umpteenth time: That was decided in November. Grow up and move on.

And don’t say, “What about the debt?” If they were serious about that, they’d try to keep interest rates low and GDP high. (They’d also take seriously the idea of more revenue…) If we default, though, interest rates will skyrocket and GDP will crater. (That’s not just my opinion, btw; follow the link to see the stark terms used by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.) Think “rates on my credit card” (instead of the near-zero rates we enjoy now) and “next Great Depression”. That’s a helluva debt trap (expenses way up, income way down) to try to claw our way back out of.

Even the credible threat to default has short term rates rising and people nervous to make long term investments. Would you buy US Treasury bonds right now? Would you open or expand a business right now (or even during the negotiations, assuming a bill passes)? (Zandi estimates the current standoff has already cut $20 billion off GDP.) If I had money to move, it’d be leaving the US economy post haste.

This isn’t “Let’s compromise because everyone has some valuable ideas” time. This is “Either you jerks come to your senses, or you’ll drive our government and economy off a cliff.” And I don’t have a lot of faith in the former.

I really hope Obama is willing to declare unilateral executive power to continue borrowing if it comes to that. The alternative starts to look like an even more extreme, self-inflicted version of the Greek collapse. But with way more guns. What could go wrong?

Crime, News Coverage, and Institutional Racism

If there’s anything that pretty much everyone should agree on in light of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story, it’s that the story shows how deeply divided we remain as a country.

At least as reflected by posts on Facebook, 100% of my liberal intelligentsia friends are outraged that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free, and the debates between us (to the extent that there have been any) have been about which people in the criminal justice system get which share of the blame.

Along with outrage, ethnic minorities and African Americans in particular also express a collective hurt and fear that I will never truly understand.

Yet others (here is where I’m grateful that not all of my friends and family are in the liberal intelligentsia) are miffed at the race-focused attention by the media and the political push to make the case into a symbol of broader issues. While I needn’t say it, let’s be explicit about the fact that nearly 100% of these folks are white. (I’m not Facebook friends with Clarence Thomas, and even if I were, I wonder if he posts more than once every seven years.)

While not all of these white, “Why the fuss?” crowd would admit it if probed, I think a good bit of this discomfort with the attention paid to the Zimmerman/Martin case comes from the implicit finger being pointed at them. If blacks are held down in schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system, surely somebody’s doing the holding. If minorities have unfair disadvantages, then the surplus unfair advantage is going to white people. If the system is racist, and you believe in the system, doesn’t that make you racist?

The good news is that the failure to be outraged over Trayvon’s death doesn’t make one a bigot, but the bad news is that this is because the answer is way more complicated than that. I hope to reassure my white, politically centrist or right-of-center friends that I’m not calling them racist or bigoted. Yet there are little things that we all do — you and me, blacks and whites, powerful and disempowered — that play into an incredibly intricate system of racial inequality.

I give you institutional racism.

The bigotry need not be in (y)our hearts; it can be in the mortgage you grant or don’t, the education policies you adopt, or the policing tactics you support. Mayor Bloomberg is obviously comfortable around racial minorities and would surely never dream of not hiring somebody due to their race, but he remains tone deaf to the incredibly not-race-neutral (and, frankly, not constitutional) nature of his policing strategies.

Which brings us back to Martin and Zimmerman. The justice system, as a whole, is heavily biased against minorities. Blacks are very over-represented in the criminal justice system; less than 1% of white men are imprisoned, while for black men, it’s 1 in 15, or almost 7%.

This happens at every step of the criminal justice system, from police investigation through trial. As the Times notes:

A 2005 study by the Justice Department found that while Hispanic, black and white drivers were stopped by the police about as often, Hispanic drivers or their vehicles were searched 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for white drivers. Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses.

Even in murder trials where defendants claim self defense, race is a major factor. See this graphic.

Versus the baseline of white-on-white violence, black defendants are far less likely to be found to have acted in self-defense, and it’s many times again less likely when the victim is white. In contrast, white defendants are many times more likely to be found to have acted in self-defense when the victim is black.

That’s institutional racism.

Yet it goes farther. Many of the white “Why the fuss?” crowd might even acknowledge the racial bias in the courts (though too few are familiar with the staggering specifics), but they object to all the political outrage over Trayvon and wonder where the sympathy and coverage are for white crime victims, especially when the accused perpetrators are black.

It turns out, though, that the news media are also afflicted with institutional racism. This goes well beyond the genuine hacks like Bill O’Reilly. Rather, it’s the whole system — the one largely staffed by left-of-center reporters and editors.

An analysis of scholarly studies of the representation of race in crime coverage is telling. As summarized here, “75 percent of the studies found that minorities were overrepresented as perpertrators, [and] over 80 percent of the studies found that more attention was paid to white victims than to minority victims.”

A somewhat newer study, which includes a representative national sample of television newscasts, finds similarly striking results, cutting in the same direction.

Even the portrayal of black female victims is far too rare — this even though female victims are more likely to be seen on the news than male victims overall.

In the aftermath of a major story about a black victim, killed by a white shooter, we’re hearing a good bit of “Why the fuss?” and “Where’s the attention to white victims and/or black perpetrators?” With no disrespect to any victim, whites have nothing to worry about when it comes to folks who look like them being shown on the news as victims of serious crimes. No news outlet can cover every story, but over time, white victims and black perpetrators have been and certainly will continue to be overrepresented.

On this count, Martin and Zimmerman are symbols for the broader problem of institutional racism in this country. Nobody needs to be energetically or even consciously racist for the major racial disparities we see to continue. Continuing racial inequity doesn’t need the next George Wallace; Michael Bloomberg will do just fine.

If you’re on the happy side of these inequalities, I think you should at least be honest with yourself and the world about the thousands of little ways in which your life is that much easier because of it. This isn’t to diminish the countless things you’ve undoubtedly done right, the hard work you’ve done, the substantial degree to which you’ve earned your place.

As white Americans, though, let’s at least all agree to be honest with ourselves and each other that we get at least a small leg up in pretty much every institution in society with which we deal.

That every right decision is likely to get us just a bit farther along than it would for an African American.

That we have at least a bit more room to make mistakes before being fired, evicted, jailed — or killed. 

That the few places where we don’t have every advantage clearly pointed in our direction (college admissions and scholarships come to mind) are the exception and, regardless of what one thinks of them as policies, will never outweigh the much larger forces that cut the other direction.

That, yes, there are a few rich blacks and many poor whites, and class inequality is also a major issue that needs to be addressed — but that this doesn’t disprove any of the above.

Then, please join me in a quest to fight those disparities, one institution at a time. Not by making life harder for whites, of course, but by extending the same understanding, opportunities, and benefit of the doubt to all.

The Analytics Floor

There was an interesting article in Politico yesterday, titled [gulp] “Honey, I shrunk the Obama data machine.”*  The article discusses next steps for the Democratic data machine in the leadup to the 2013 and 2014 elections.  The big question: can the Obama analytics tools translate to the state and congressional levels?

The answer (to paraphrase): “yes, but only some of them.”

When people talk about the #Demdata advantage in campaigns, they’re really talking about (at least) three distinct phenomena.  Two translate well to smaller campaigns, the third doesn’t.  The dividing line is something that I call the analytics floor.

(1) One of the biggest advantages Democrats hold over Republicans is the rich voter file that Democrats have developed.  Republicans are working to build their own national database, to sometimes-comedic ends.  That voter file can be exported to congressional campaigns, special elections, governor’s races, etc.  OFA alumni like Dan Wagner of Civis Analytics specialize in just this sort of data modeling.  Obama invested millions in developing the voter file and built a network of hundreds of experts in combining the voter file with polling data to produce much clearer maps of the electorate.  As those experts turn to consulting and expand their reach outward, the price of these services will become more affordable over time.

 

(2) A second advantage comes in the form of lessons learned through persuasion and turnout experiments.  The Analyst Institute was very busy during the 2012 election cycle, running tests to determine what sort of techniques and appeals can best sway undecided voters and motivate disinterested supporters.  These lessons in political behavior are transportable from one election to another — if they’ve determined that voter “report cards” drive people to the polls, that’s a lesson that can improve off-year elections as well.  Democrats have invested in cutting-edge social science, and are in no rush to share their findings with Republican competitors.  This advantage will echo into 2014 and beyond.

(3) The third facet of #DemData is what Daniel Kreiss calls “computational management.”  Computational management refers to the day-to-day role that analytics can play in campaign management, and the “culture of testing” it promotes.  The Obama campaign tested everything.  It tested e-mail subject lines.  It tested font sizes.  It tested niche television spots.  Data settled arguments and maximized investments.  Here’s where things get dicey.

Day-to-day inputs aren’t going to be available and/or useful to smaller campaigns the way they were to the Obama campaign.  If you’re running a mayoral race in Hartford, there will be one or two polls conducted *at most*, and they’ll probably come from a relatively unknown firm.  That’s exponentially less data than the Obama “cave” was working with.  If you’re running a Rockville City Council race, there may be no polling available.  And the number of people visiting your website/receiving your emails/reading your tweets is so small that you can’t run tests to find out which messages/frames/asks are most effective.  You need scale for computational management.  The analytics floor is the dividing line between large-scale and small-scale.

Computational management is a solution to large-scale problems, though.  Honestly, running for city council just isn’t that complicated.  Talk to your neighbors, earn the endorsements of community leaders, place a table at community events.  The districts are small enough that you will mostly be relying upon personalized political communication anyway.  The Hartford mayoral race is a bit more complicated, so data and modeling play a modest role.   Think of that as a rule: as we increase the size of the electorate, the power of the office, and the (resultant) money being spent on the election, the size and complexity of the campaign apparatus increases as well.

The Obama campaign’s biggest managerial innovation was using multiple forms of data to improve decision-making in this complex environment.  Analytics is a solution to the problems introduced at massive scale.  Below the analytics floor, the tools are less useful, but they’re also less necessary.

 

*C’mon Politico, a 24 year-old Rick Moranis reference?  You’re better than that.

Dear Government Snoops: Just Come Get Me Now

For a number of (really good) reasons, I’ve not been able to spend much time following the endless, ever-forthcoming details about the US government’s decision to vacuum up as much of our communication data as possible.

Even from such a less-than-ideal base of knowledge, and even though it will take months or years for everything to come out (if ever), I already believe the following:

What Edward Snowden did is one of the most heroic, medal-worthy acts by an American so far this century. I say this even though I’m also horrified that somebody with his scant qualifications was in such a position.

No mountain of prestigious journalistic prizes can repay the debt owed to the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald by the citizens of this country.

President Obama should immediately grant Snowden a full presidential pardon — and, further, give Snowden his own (prematurely given and, as is now clear, unearned) Nobel Peace Prize as a token of his gratitude.

Concerns about the steady erosion of civil liberties and all-too-quick slide into a surveillance state are finally starting to get a sliver of the traction they should have gotten since roughly the end of 2001.

The erosion of civil liberties via state surveillance has been accompanied by an ever-shrinking capacity for citizens to monitor the state. This ranges from the mundane (e.g., police officers routinely harassing, arresting, injuring, and/or falsely charging people for photographing or recording them in public) to the profound (e.g., charging journalists as “co-conspirators” for soliciting restricted information).

There is perhaps no better test of whether technology activists will be able to mobilize the public en masse on behalf of a desired change — rather than, as in the SOPA blackout, against an unpopular proposed change.

Whether or not an anti-surveillance movement can effect major changes in policy is not a fair measure of whether and how well such a movement performs as a movement; better measures include people mobilized to action, mainstream coverage, and policymakers and allies recruited.

Regardless of whether it is fair to measure an anti-surveillance movement based on policy outcomes, such policy outcomes may be a fair way to measure the viability of our democracy. If we can’t get people on the left, right, and center to join together to take back the Fourth Amendment, the promises of our Constitution are pretty hollow indeed. (Satire or not, this hits close to home.)

If I were in the position of Snowden, Greenwald, or the Guardian, I hope and believe that I would make pretty much the same decisions.

I say all of this publicly, even though I no longer have faith that I can do so without fear of retribution (yes, I use that term deliberately) by the state.

So, to the snoops that are undoubtedly listening — even though it’s unlikely that any human will ever actually read this tiny speck in an ocean of data — come and get me.

If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If leaking state secrets in the public interest puts one in danger of torture, indefinite detention, exile, or being disappeared, we’re all in danger — and for most people, this will be because too few will be brave enough to take such a risk to protect the citizenry from the state.

So consider me part of the conspiracy, Mr./Ms. Snoop. Tell your supervisors that we have a dissident who needs closer scrutiny and maybe a visit from an agent.

I’d rather go to prison, right now, for the rest of my life than to live in complicity as we slide ever-closer toward becoming a bona fide police state.

And just to increase the odds that a real human does see this: bombs Al Qaeda assassinate infidels fertilizer kill death murder planes airports President Obama Capitol White House 9/11 TNT flying with liquids in containers larger than 100 ml (3 oz. for you SAE holdouts) and not taking off my accursed shoes. So there.

P.S. If there’s one consequence I do fear as a result of this post specifically, it’s being put on the no-fly list — itself a particularly apt illustration of the intersection of terrorism paranoia, unchecked executive branch power, and rank bureaucratic incompetence.

On PRISM: Orwell’s or Huxley’s America

It’s been a whirlwind news cycle over the past 48 hours.  Welcome to the 21st century surveillance state.  We’ve been living here for some time, but no one bothered to say so until now.  In grappling with it all, I keep returning to a few literary classics.

Neil Postman begins his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by ruminating on two distinct visions of our dystopic future, portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophecy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo the capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

(emphasis added)

On a Thursday afternoon panel at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufecki argued that big data in campaigns is paving the way for a future that is equal parts Orwell and Huxley.  The threat comes less from electoral campaigns themselves than from well-financed economic players who will replicate and enhance the new market techniques in other arenas.  Our powers of monitoring and distraction are growing at an outlandish pace.

Through cosmic coincidence, the first news about PRISM broke just after her panel.  Along with monitoring all of our phone calls through Verizon, it seems the NSA is also capable of accessing all communications via Google/Gmail/YouTube, Microsoft/Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Aol, and Paltalk. According to the career intelligence officer who leaked the information, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

PRISM is Orwell’s America. Really, what else can you call it? If, two weeks ago, Someone told me that the government was soaking up all our online data, capable of reading things while we type them, I would have backed away slowly, wondering where they left their tin foil hat. Then the Washington Post told me instead.  The depth and breadth of this domestic spying program is just astonishing.

But Huxley’s vision is the reason this Orwellian architecture can be constructed.  Consider:

RT @AdamKilgoreWP Friday on A1 of WaPo: The govt is reading yr email. Saturday: The Nats’ season has been a real drag http://wapo.st/15JSxGU 

And it’s not just the front page of the Washington Post.  Tune in to your Twitter stream tomorrow, around 9:30PM EST.  I guarantee you that no one will be discussing PRISM.  They’ll be talking about Daenerys Stormborn and Arya Stark.  They’ll be talking about Lebron James and Tony Parker.  They’ll be trading jokes about Don Draper and Joan Holloway.  It’s like Kurt Cobain said, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.”

I see room for just a bit of anti-Huxley hope.  Also at Personal Democracy Forum, Sara Critchfield talked about Upworthy.com.  Upworthy has only been around for a year and a half, and it already reaches 2/3rds of all Americans.  Their business model is surprisingly simple: find “socially positive” stories, repackage them with more engaging headlines, and help them go viral.  Eli Pariser founded Upworthy after he wrote The Filter Bubble (see my review here).  It was founded on the premise that people actually want more than cat videos and celebrity gossip.  Provide engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, or enraging content and people will read it, share it, and discuss it.  We just have to get better at marketing the quality content as well as we market the junk content.

Upworthy’s success gives reason for hope.  Sunday night, I’ll be watching the NBA Finals and Game of Thrones.  But Monday, I’ll probably see some PRISM-related content from Upworthy in my media stream, and I’ll share it and participate further in the public conversation.  How much hope we should have is directly proportional to how large of a niche companies like Upworthy will eventually occupy.  How widely are those diverse preferences for substantive and entertaining comments spread?  Can we sustain national attention around issues like PRISM for long enough to demand answers and action from public officials, or will we quickly flip to the next story?

I don’t know.  But, as we marvel at this newly unveiled Orwellian surveillance state, it’s these Huxley-esque questions that will concern me most.

We don’t arrive at this surveillance regime through a perpetual state of fear.  We get there through perpetual distraction.