More from Gabriella Coleman on the NSA Leaks

Today in a final post in our ongoing NSA debate between authors Gabriella Coleman and Rahul Sagar,  Professor Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, responds to Professor Sagar’s recent post, offering a historical perspective on intelligence agencies and raising the potential for grave abuse in an era of increased technological capabilities. Read the wrap up post in this fascinating series here:

Gabriella Coleman:

Rahul Sagar’s thoughtful response has prompted me to think through a few troubling questions which have been plaguing me since Snowden’s bombshell revelations. It is without question that intelligence agencies require secrecy to effectively work.  I agree that this issue is not new. But if history is any guide, it also shows that secrecy, while necessary, is also a breeding ground for abuse. In a prior era, a dramatic leak by the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI helped put an end to a 40 year reign of outrageous abuses, such as COINTELPRO, at the helm of J. Edgar Hoover who ruled the FBI with an secretive iron fist.

But this surveillance apparatus strikes as technologically and thus historically distinctive. It can be gravely abused with or without a Hoover. Never in our history have we had in place a surveillance infrastructure as extensive and powerful as we do now, nor administrations who have refused so systematically to declassify information. (One does wonder what Nixon could have done with the surveillance methods that the government has at its disposal today).  With enough computer power, it is frighteningly easy for the government to gather data. This ease will likely push them to seek questionable or ex post de facto justifications for their actions. This was put rather cogently and succinctly by civil liberties lawyer Jennifer Granick when “Of course, we see mission creep – once you build the mousetrap of surveillance infrastructure, they will come for the data.” It is not only that they have this power, but as sociologists and others, have noted, secrecy is alluring and really hard to give up/ This state of mind was put best by physicist Edward Teller who wrote, “secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

There might be a very good reason to have the surveillance methods that the NSA has now, but until that reason is disclosed, there is no reason for them to have such awesome technical (and questionable) legal powers currently at their disposal. The problem is we have these programs and our government could use them as a tool of oppression (in fact the mere fact of their existence serves to stifle dissent). Even if abuses are not so grave today, what is so troubling is how these programs enable any future person who might gain control of them to utilize these tools for serious oppression.

We as a society have to ask whether this is a gamble we are willing to take. Since the stakes for the future are so high, the decision about the scope and depth of eavesdropping cannot and should not be an undertaking that is decided by the President, the FISA court, or even all the three branches of government acting in agreement. Only we as a people, who hold the truths described in the constitution as self-evident, are allowed, by that very constitution, to make changes to these rights. “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [and Women et al.], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” At some point, the actions of the government go too far, and it is up to us to sound the alarm. The Pentagon Papers, the COINTELPRO leaks, the Tet Offensive, these are many instances when citizens have not trusted our elected officials and with good reason.

It is our responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable, although we  can only effectively do so with the aid of a free press. Journalists help keep whistle-blowers accountable. Snowden worked with journalists, from independent film maker Laura Poitras to Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post. The fact that respected news organizations accepted the leaks, filtered the information, and wrote extensive and thoughtful stories demonstrates the validity and responsibility of Snowden’s actions. If his leaks posed such a grave threat to the state of security, I trust these media establishments would not gone public with them.

Finally, I would like to clarify Snowden’s statements on Nuremberg. He is not equating the NSA with Nazi Germany, he just simply referencing a principle. He is also not saying that this principle exonerates him in any US court, but simply that it justifies his actions on a moral level. Snowden is saying that there are times where it is not only moral to break the law, but that it is immoral and wrong to not break the law. Further, it might be interesting  engage  in a thought experiment about how Snowden’s actions also might relate to the Nuremberg Principles.  For the purposes of this experiment, we would submit some undisputed facts about The United States. The United States continues to torture and cause substantial suffering to 44 people who are still held against their will in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via forced nasal intubation twice daily. In the past, they were tortured by electrocuting their genitals, and simulated drowning through waterboarding. The US has forcibly rendered people to other countries for purposes of torture, and deprive them of their liberty without charge or due process, calling them “detainees”. If we look how Nuremberg Principles defines a “crime against humanity” the United States has committed over half of the abuses on that list. The programs that Snowden has revealed likely were involved in the capture and detainment of many of these people.

In the end I, like everyone else, wants to live in a state of security. This means not only  thwarting terrorism—though it invariably includes it—but means having the security to engage in dissent, thus the security to call out the grave human rights abuses—such as those at Guantanamo Bay—which our elected officials have allowed to transpire and to raise red flags about programs, such as Prism, which might lead to grave abuse in the future.

 

 

More from Rahul Sagar on the NSA Leaks

Last week Rahul Sagar, author of Secrets and Leaks, and Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, began a fascinating debate on the complex moral and political issues surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks. You can read professor Sagar’s thoughts here and Professor Coleman’s response here.

Today Professor Sagar responds once more to Professor Coleman, discussing the flow of information, the morality of foreign surveillance, and how to prevent the abuse of secrecy.

Rahul Sagar:

As I said, Snowden is brave to have revealed his identity. Professor Coleman is right to say that Snowden has not tried to draw attention himself. I would, however, point out that Snowden’s silence may owe more to Vladimir Putin’s instruction that he not cause trouble if he wants to stay on Russia. Hence, our evaluation of Snowden the person must await further evidence.

I am also not sure that Snowden’s actions are the product of the “contemporary historical moment.” It has become commonplace to describe leaking and whistleblowing as a response to the “excessive” secrecy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. The reality is that these practices have existed throughout American history, and they have consistently attracted controversy. So the fact that Snowden is not alone in making unauthorized disclosures does not answer the moral question of whether and when public employees should disclose classified information.

Professor Coleman praises Snowden’s actions because they “open the spigot so valuable information could flow to a thirsty public who holds the right to know.” This is to take the view that the American people themselves should decide when and how electronic surveillance is conducted. This emphasis on a participatory form of democracy is problematic though. National security requires secrecy. If we publicly rule out certain surveillance methods —for example that the government should not spy on Facebook users — then Al Qaeda will start using this channel. It is because we cannot openly discuss surveillance measure that we delegate the management of national security to our chosen representatives.

How, then, to prevent the abuse of secrecy? One way to do so is to rely on the separation of powers. The other is to rely on our own good sense. We cannot see what the President or the FISA court see, but we can appoint to these offices people whose character and judgment we can trust. Professor Coleman dismisses these constitutional measures too quickly. She takes the view that asking whistleblowers and leakers to respect democratically elected officials subject to checks and balances is to urge “blind respect for dubious laws”. But why should citizens believe that unelected and unaccountable individuals like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden are better placed to know what’s good for America, and what should be secret? And how can we undo their actions if their disclosures turn out to have been rash?

I believe we should be more circumspect. State secrecy makes it hard to oversee officials, lawmakers, and judges and to bring them to account. This is frustrating, but the answer is not to encourage unauthorized disclosures on the grounds that this quenches the public’s thirst for information. The public may end up swallowing air instead of water. For instance, there might be very good reasons for why the NSA is using the surveillance methods it uses, but these reasons cannot always be shared with the public. One-sided disclosures like those made by Snowden can leave the public with a distorted sense of what the NSA is up to.

This does not mean that whistleblowers and leakers do not play a valuable role. They aid American democracy when they disobey the law in order to expose serious wrongdoing. But Snowden has not met this standard. Even if his initial disclosures about NSA surveillance had merit, his subsequent disclosures about American surveillance of foreign powers are inappropriate. Snowden has defended these disclosures by citing the Nuremberg Principle. But spying on foreign powers is not a crime against humanity. To equate foreign surveillance with Nazi war crimes betrays a lack of judgment. And to argue that foreign surveillance is immoral while taking refuge in a country that is run by a strongman from the former KGB is doubly odd.


Gabriella Coleman, Author of Coding Freedom on the NSA Leaks

Yesterday Rahul Sagar, author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, offered his thoughts on Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the benefit and dangers of whistleblowing. Today, Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking joins us to respond to Professor Sagar’s view, offer her take on the impassioned debate surrounding Snowden’s actions, and the media’s allegations of narcissism. (Also, catch Professor Coleman today on Huffington Post Live discussing whether the FBI has ‘dismantled’ the hacker collective Anonymous.)

Gabriella Coleman:

Out of all the charges lobbed against Edward Snowden I find the lay diagnosis of  his “narcissism” to be the most puzzling and spurious. How exactly is risking your life—by which I mean life in jail—an instance of a narcissistic temperament? Even though he went public, partly for self-protection, he has kept his interactions with the media to a bare minimum, clearly not seeking more undue attention. Given the lack of evidence of this pathology, labeling him as such strikes as a character assassination meant to detract from the more pressing issues his actions have raised.

If we contextualize what he did, not in terms of personality but in light of the contemporary historical moment, what we see without a shadow of a doubt is that Edward Snowden is not alone. He is part of a growing cohort of individuals who have for years diagnosed the explosive rise of state secrecy and surveillance as enough of a problem that they are willing to take on personal risk to impel debate and change. What is most notable is that this cohort is composed of insiders (William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning) and outsiders (Julian Assange, Barrett Brown, and James Bamford). The fact that there is a chorus is significant.

The public should perhaps be more skeptical if it were only one person or only the Julian Assanges’ of the world—long time activists who have always sat outside the state apparatus —who were crying foul. That we have investigative journalists, military personnel, employees from security agencies, and activists join the fray signals the extent of the problem; there are different unconnected individuals from distinct walks of life coming forward identifying similar problems.

This brings us to the shores of the second issue: the sanctity of the law. What I think is clear by now is that the revealed programs violate aspects of the law in both the spirit and the letter. Lawyers have recently put it in no uncertain terms: “The two programs violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law. No statute explicitly authorizes mass surveillance.” In an ideal world we would simply use legal mechanisms to eliminate bad laws or fight grave injustices. Critics should walk down this path before law-breaking. This is exactly what happened in this case. Since the inception of the Patriot Act, which was passed under a time of great national duress and fear, we have seen various attempts by civil liberties organizations to curtail efforts at the vast enterprise that is unwarranted, warantless wiretapping using the law. One lawsuit first brought forward by the EFF and ACLU in 2006 against AT&T was not only drawn out, it was ultimately stonewalled by a dubious law that granted telecoms who cooperated with the government with retroactive immunity. The law has been tampered with to such an extent to have rendered using it in this case useless.

Along with legal efforts,  individuals have also used available channels at their disposal to effect change but to no avail. We have to look no further than Thomas Drake, a long time NSA employee who  grew uneasy with the violations he witnessed first hand. His first actions were reform based. He went to his superiors with his concerns and was told to stop. He went to the press with unclassified information for which he payed dearly being the subject of a DOJ investigation, eventually dropped but not before his career had been ruined.

The only actions to have engendered substantive debate and faint wisps of change have been Snowden’s leaks. Why? Foremost is that there is no fabled majority who support surveillance.
When news about Prism first broke and polls were taken, only 56% were in favor of state surveillance and the polls failed to mention Americans were targeted. Even then, how it is a number which represents a mere half of a country can be cast as a majority? It can’t. This issue is
unsettled. Further, as more damning allegations have come out, numbers have shifted, and more Americans are in opposition to current programs, especially when the question reflects the fact that American’s digital lives are being captured and stored.

Snowden’s reasons for revealing information cannot be simply reduced to “secrets should not be kept.” His statements about why he did what he did, and the documents that he leaked have shown a much more complicated rationale that cannot be omitted from our analysis. What Snowden did was open the spigot so valuable information could flow to a thirsty public who holds the right to know. Only then, can the public move to a realistic assessment about what course of action to take with a government agency, which currently holds limitless powers for surveillance and who actively withheld information and lied to Congress about its actions.

The type of impassioned debate generated by Snowden and the fervent coalition building and advocacy which has cropped up to press for change in the wake of these revelations and not blind respect for dubious laws, represents the living pulse of democracy. We are indebted to Snowden to have opened the gates. It is now up to us to finish the job.

Rahul Sagar Talks Secrets and Leaks, and the NSA

Rahul Sagar, professor of politics at Princeton and author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy took some time to talk about his very timely book and offer his take on the NSA disclosures. Read his thoughts here, and stay tuned tomorrow for another perspective from Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, anthropologist of hacking culture, and digital rights activist.

Professor Sagar, In SECRETS AND LEAKS, a book that really could not have been more well-timed in terms of recent events, you talk about how disclosures like the NSA ones are the only credible means of checking the executive power, and because of this, must be tolerated. This sounds like a pretty reluctant acceptance of whistle-blowing, so I wonder if you could explain more about where your skepticism, as well as your acceptance comes from.  How skeptical are you in regards to Snowden’s actions?

Secrets and Leaks argues that our usual responses to state secrecy are problematic. For nearly a century now, we have responded to the concern that secrecy might be misused by calling for legislative and judicial oversight. But this response shifts rather than resolves the problem, because it is only a matter of time before citizens begin to wonder whether their lawmakers and judges are doing a good job overseeing secrecy.

This is what we’re witnessing today. Even though Congress and the FISA court are overseeing the NSA, citizens are now questioning whether Congress and the FISA court are doing an adequate job. Of course they can’t know the answer to this question, because they can’t peer inside the secret committees in Congress or inside the secret FISA court.

So how then can citizens feel confident that state secrecy is not being misused? I argue that unauthorized disclosures of classified information — in the form of whistleblowing and leaking — provide an answer. Because someone, somewhere could make an unauthorized disclosure, government officials do not feel very confident about being able to conceal wrongdoing. This makes unauthorized disclosures a powerful regulatory weapon.

But this regulatory weapons can backfire. Unauthorized disclosures can actually hurt democracy. I am thinking here of the anonymous disclosures that led to wrongful charges being brought against Wen Ho Lee and Steven Hatfill. These episodes —- merely the tip of the iceberg — caution us against instantly making heroes of whistleblowers and leakers and the press who cover them. We must remember that these actors often have their own interests and agendas at heart. This is the source of my reluctance or cautiousness.

I have mixed feelings about Snowden’s actions. I do see him as having done something brave and idealistic. I appreciate his decision to reveal his identity. Reportedly he did this in order to prevent his colleagues from being harassed and interrogated by investigators. If this was really his motive—and not narcissism—then this is admirable.

At the same time, I am troubled by self-righteousness on the part of those who break the law. To break the law is a very serious thing. It must be done under certain circumstances — when it reveals egregious legal or moral violations — and in certain ways — by carefully revealing only so much as is necessary.

Both Bradley Manning and Snowden have revealed information because they think secrets should not be kept. But this is not a sound basis for breaking the law. A number of administrations, representatives, judges — from all three branches — as well as a majority of citizens support electronic surveillance. Therefore, to simply override what the majority have lawfully chosen with your personal beliefs smacks of moral arrogance.

Therefore, I see Snowden as misguided. He has imposed his own values and ideas on the public—a majority of whom support electronic surveillance, and whose representatives have repeatedly endorsed the NSA’s programs. This is all the more true with respect to Snowden’s disclosures concerning foreign (rather than domestic) surveillance.

Snowden’s rashness also sets a very bad precedent. If Snowden is allowed to break the law, then shouldn’t others be? What is to stop a fiscal hawk in the Defense Department from following Snowden’s example and revealing what he considers ‘wasteful spending’ on nuclear weapons research? This sort of behavior can seriously undermine the effectiveness of our national security apparatus.


Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist makes a splash

j10031[1]Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at UCLA, has become an overnight sensation thanks to a tremendously popular feature in the New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler. Chwe’s new take on the beloved writer as a strategic analyst has been the talk of twitter this week, with even Chelsea Clinton tweeting that she can’t wait to read the book. Chwe has several exciting appearances coming up that we’ll announce in the coming days. You can enter to win a copy of the book at Goodreads, but while you wait for the winners to be announced on May 10, check out Jane Austen’s letter to Dr. Chwe in Scientific American , and Dr. Chwe’s own clever response.

Also, y
ou can watch the charming book trailer here:

 

 


Corey Brettschneider on The Glenn Show, Public Ethics Radio, and more

Political and constitutional theorist Corey Brettschneider has been busy doing a number of interviews to promote his book, When the State Speaks, What Should it Say: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality. His book looks at the quandary often faced by democracies when they are forced to choose between protecting the right of its citizens to engage in hate-related speech, or violating freedom of expression. Brettschneider argues that the state should protect the right to express discriminatory beliefs, but that it should actively engage in democratic persuasion, publicly criticizing or giving reasons to reject such hate-based views. Check out his first interview on Bloggingheads about his book, and his second, a discussion of race and public / private distinction. Corey  also appeared on Public Ethics Radio  (sponsored by Carnegie Endowment) with Christian Barry  to discuss his book, and took part in a New Books in Philosophy interview with Robert Talisse.

For a detailed look at When the State Speaks, What Should it Say, check out the online symposium on Publicreason.net, an ongoing chapter-by-chapter discussion of his book, with contributions by an array of prominent scholars.

 

 

 

Ethnography and Virtual Worlds is virtually everywhere

As our existence and interactions have grown increasingly virtual, the arena has rapidly evolved into a new frontier for human life, with many of the complexities, cultural nuances and and social problems of the ‘real’ world. Several years ago, anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, arguably the first anthropologist to study this realm in its rich complexity, published his breakthrough fieldwork in Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.  Now he has coauthored, along with Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, the first ever guidebook for conducting ethnography in virtual worlds, and the book is getting a ton of attention in the blogosphere.  For some of the highlights, check out the Mixed Realities piece on the relevance of an avatar, or the wonderful excerpt from the book on New World Notes, or the authors’ Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable here. Naturally the book has gained an enthusiastic following with the Second Life crowd, popping up everywhere from Second Life News to the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. Boellstorff is such a natural in virtual worlds that he’s been known to throw book parties in Second Life, where he’s been virtually unfazed by his publicist’s awkwardly manned avatar.

 

 

A Mix-tape for Our President

An Election wrap-up from Jennifer Lena, author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music


“A wise man once said, “never discuss philosophy or politics in a disco environment.”” Frank Zappa interview with Grace Slick on Rockplace (11 February 1984)

In celebration of the end of a long election season, I created this mixtape for our returning President, Barack Obama. For those who have never heard of a mixtape, they are compilations of songs designed for a particular purpose (e.g., as a romantic gesture, to celebrate an accomplishment). The term derives from the 1980s when cassette tapes were the medium in use, although music fans now create mixtapes on CDs and on social media platforms like Spotify.  The thematic link between the songs listed below are the issues our new (and returning) President is likely to consider during his next term in office. The list isn’t exhaustive, and I’ve balanced the thematic relevance of each song with its aesthetic quality and my desire to highlight examples of excellent pop music. Where possible, I’ve included a recording of the song, but readers should note that some songs include profanity and should listen to them before playing the songs around children.

 

1. “Letter to my countrymen,” Brother Ali (Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, 2012).

 

“I used to think I hated this place/Couldn’t wait to tell the president straight to his face.” Brother Ali, and many other Americans, enter Obama’s second term feeling as if the American Dream has slipped through their fingers in recent years, or never thought it was their dream to have. Ali’s song is a hopeful and mature response to the disappointments of life in America—eight lines in, he admits: “I wanna make this country what it says it is.” He’s concerned about the corrosive effects of two myths: that of American exceptionalism, and of meritocracy and individual achievement. In the lingering wake of the Occupy movement, and while we are still in what some call America’s “Second Gilded Age,” the President need to lead us in a conversation about privilege—whether it comes from the color of your skin or the class of your parents, and criticize this still-popular notion that we get up on our own.

 

2. “Reagan,” Killer Mike (R.A.P. Music, 2012).

 

Obama faces a crisis of legitimacy in some parts of our country. You might argue this is a problem that Nixon created, but this particular president continues to face challenges from Birthers, those who doubt his Christian faith, despair from his handling of the economy (and from a rogue’s gallery of conspiracy theorists with some truly odd ideas).  Rapper Killer Mike lost his faith in the presidency in the 1980s, a transformation he describes in a song titled “Reagan.” Using two audio samples from Regan’s denial and later acceptance of his administration’s exchange of arms-for-hostages, the song’s lyrics chart the political development of a young man watching the Iran-Contra affair and then the war on drugs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…and at each step, his distrust of, and anger against, the government grow stronger. The lyrics speak to a number of issues the new president must consider, but it’s strongest and longest attack is reserved for the culture of incarceration: “thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits/Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics.” America leads the world in incarcerating its citizens. According to one estimate, we had 5% of the world’s population in 2008, but a full quarter of its prisoners.  One in 100 American adults is in prison, and that number jumps to about 5 of every 100 adult African-American men (and 9 of every 100 black men between 25-40).   The incarceration of citizens affects not only the criminal and his family, but also taxpayers: the costs of incarcerating so many Americans are enormous. By one estimate, California spent $4 billion more on prisons than on the state college systems in 2011. It costs that state less than $10,000 a year to educate a student, while housing, policing, and (hopefully) reforming a prisoner costs over $45,000 per inmate.

 

3. “Watching the Detectives,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (My Aim is True, 1977)*.

 

Privacy laws have arguably not kept up with technology, and the post-9/11 era has been one in which politicians must balance citizens’ civil liberties against the value of new police technologies designed to keep us safe.  In recent months, the ACLU is among those organizations and citizen’s groups that have appeared before government panels to take a stand against these threats, including warrantless wiretapping, domestic drones, and face recognition technology. The new President should consider these issues while listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1977 hit song “Watching the Detectives.”

 

*“Watching the Detectives” was released as a UK single in October 1977, but wasn’t on the album; in the U.S. version of the album, it was the last track on the A-side.

 

4. “Price Tag,” Jesse J (Who You Are, 2011); “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Bob Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965).

 

One of the more controversial legal decisions in recent years was “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” The new president will consider campaign finance reform and challenges to the notion of corporate “personhood” from those who think money is not speech. For a soundtrack to this discussion, I recommend Jesse J’s huge hit song “Price Tag:” “Seems like everybody’s got a price/ I wonder how they sleep at night/ When the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” Or, if he’s in a more mellow mood, Bob Dylan’s just the thing to remind him that “money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

 

5. “The City Consumes Us,” The Delgados (Universal Audio, 2004)

According to the U.S. Census, eight out of every 10 people lived in a metropolitan area in 2010, and more than one in 10 lived in either New York or Los Angeles.  We might think America’s culture is defined by its heartland, it’s “breadbaskets,” or its “prairies,” but most of us live in concrete jungles. “Watch how the city consumes us,” sing the Delgados, “Watch how the city destroys us,” and yet, it is a “cost I am happy to pay.” The list of great songs about cities is too long to share, but here are some of my runners-up: (1) the live version of Mano Negra’s “Guayakill City,” (2) Brazilian Girls, “Internacional,” (3) “Chocolate City,” Parliament, (4) almost the entire Jay Z catalog including “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” and, of course, “Empire State of Mind,” (5) “Living for the City” (Stevie Wonder), (6) “Every Ghetto, Every City,” Lauryn Hill, (7) “Detroit Rock City” (Kiss), and (8) “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses, perhaps the best song ever written about Los Angeles.

 

6. “Disparate Youth,” Santigold (Master of My Make-Believe, 2012)

 

Although Santigold’s 2012 single “Disparate Youth” is not a commentary on climate change, it is one of the changes she despairs in this tremendously good song. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather/ Another roadblock in our way/But if we go, we go together/Our hands are tied here if we stay.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we can expect temperature rises, more frequent heavy rainfall events, more serious summer-drying and drought, less snow and sea-ice, and the retreat of glaciers and ice-caps.  Our hands are tied if we stay.

 

7. “All Falls Down,” Kanye West (The College Dropout, 2004)

 

Remember when George Bush told us that the best response to 9/11 was to fly and go on vacations? Now that millions of Americans have found themselves unable to afford their mortgages, the time is right to have a national discussion about consumer spending and debt. America’s consumer debt rose to $13 trillion in the second quarter of 2012, just $2 trillion shy of our country’s total yearly economic output.  Kanye West has a message for our new president, in his 2004 song “All Falls Down:” “It seems we living the American dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem/The prettiest people do the ugliest things/For the road to riches and diamond rings/We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us/We trying to buy back our 40 acres/And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop”

 

8. “Fire Fire,” M.I.A. (Arular, 2005)

 

The U.S. Census Bureau set the official poverty rate in America at 15.1% in 2010, with over 46 million of our nation’s citizens falling below that threshold. Our president might heed the concerns of British-Sri Lankan-American pop artist M.I.A., who has developed a reputation as a voice of the poor and oppressed. Any one of the songs from her chart-topping 2005 album Arular, 2007’s effort Kala or 2010’s Maya would provide our new president with a frank examination of poverty and its consequences on political activity, daily life, gender relations, and family. “Fire Fire” is one song that warns of the dark side of poverty: the militarization of the poor—a theme that reflects M.I.A.’s concern about the persecution of her native Tamil people, and echoes themes in contemporary Americans’ concern about Islamic fundamentalism: “You shoulda been good to me,” M.I.A. sings, in the persona of a young rebel, “Then I wouldn’t get so rowdy rowdy/ You shoulda kept ya eye on me/ Then I wouldn’t get so baddy baddy.”

 

9. “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads (Remain in the Light, 1981)

 

The Baby Boomer generation is aging, and the Census estimates the dependency ratio (the number of people 65 and older to every 100 people under 65) will climb rapidly in these two decades (from 22 to 35).  By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. David Byrne fronts the Talking Heads in their classic song about change, and time, and getting older: “Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us/Time isn’t holding us, time doesn’t hold you back.” If you prefer something with more…jazz fingers…try Tom Lehrer’s “When You Are Old and Grey.” The president will, of course, consider the impact of our rapidly aging baby boom generation on health care policy, and for this, I suggest Loudon Wainwright III’s “My Meds.”

 

I’ve considered adding a song to speak to the issues faced by Hispanic-Americans; only Mexico (112 million) has a larger Hispanic population than the United States (50.5 million in 2010) and that population is expected to grow to over 130 million by July 2050.  Of course, our education system is perennially the subject of public discussion, along with our financial and immigration systems, and the problem of bullying and self-inflicted harm in the LGBTQ community (especially among the young), to name a few of many issues.

 

Our second term President faces an extraordinary number of challenges, which I’ve only started to address in the above. I need at least another five songs to finish my playlist—what should they be?

 

This post was inspired by Dorian Warren and includes suggestions from R. L’Heureux Lewis, and Daniel Radosh.

Close Elections are Won or Lost at the Door

An election wrap-up by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, author of Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

In the final weeks of the election, both campaigns and their allies have been hard at work in every competitive state, knocking on doors and calling voters at home. The “ground wars”, the parts of the campaigns that are waged door knock by door knock and phone call by phone call rather than by television advertisement, direct mail pieces, or online communications, only really emerge from the shadows just before Election Day, though they have in reality been meticulously planned long in advance, waged for months on end, and are based technical and organizational infrastructures built over the years by both major national parties and certain outside groups.

Journalists and scholars sometime talk and write about canvassing and the like as if this constituted some sort of old-fashioned “grassroots politics”, a left-over from a romantic past, but in reality volunteers knocking on doors are working side-by-side with paid part-time workers and full-time campaign staffers, and are guided by sophisticated data analysis done by specialized consultants working at their computers far away from the sound and fury on the streets of Youngstown, Ohio or the quiet determination of those trying to get out the vote in the suburbs of Arlington County, Virginia.

We know who won, but nobody but the campaigns themselves really knows how well they’ve done on the ground this time around. The Obama campaign and its allies have certainly repeatedly insisted they have an edge, and have a result to show for it. They also had the time, the experience, and the resources to make sure that they won the ground war, just as the Bush re-election team in 2004 took advantage of their head-start to outmaneuver the Democrats in several swing states. But the Romney campaign has also been talking a good (ground) game, and there is no reason to doubt that they have at the very least been considerably better prepared to fight for every last vote than the McCain campaign was in 2008. Ultimately, it may have been the Republican Party and the candidate Mitt Romney who lost the election more than it was the Romney campaign and its outside allies.

What do we know about the two ground war campaigns at this point?

In terms of reach, a Pew Research Center survey released just before the election showed that neither side had a clear advantage. In the swing states, a massive 66% of all voters report they have been contacted in person by supporters of one or both candidates. (The figure is 44% at the national level, higher than the final figure in both 2004 and 2008, and this is before the final get-out-the-vote push.) According to this data, the two campaigns have reached about the same number of people, and the overall figure will almost certainly be a record high when the dust has settled.

In terms of resources, it seems clear that the Obama campaign and its allies have invested more in field organizing that the Romney campaign and its allies. The Atlantic reports that the President has had more than 800 field offices across the country, more than twice as many as the Republicans have (the RNC runs most of Romney’s field campaign for him, in part for complicated campaign finance reasons). Labor unions and other progressive interest groups have thrown additional millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into the fray, as have various conservative groups. (With some parts of Obama’s 2008 electoral base having lost some of their enthusiasm for him over the past four years and some traditionally Democratic constituencies generally turning out at lower rates than many Republican constituencies, it has also been even more important for him to turn out the vote.)

In terms of targeting, making sure that the door knocks and phone calls reach the right people, that the resources invested are effectively used, Republicans were for years clearly ahead of the Democratic party in terms of importing techniques from commercial marketing and building the databases and tools necessary to adopt them for political purposes. But from 2008 onwards with the consolidation of a variety of Democratic/progressive data services in first the company VAN (later VAN-NGP) and collaboration across the party and within the coalition of interest groups backing it, the President and his allies has build what by all accounts is a clear advantage in terms of targeting technology and expertise.

What is clear even before anyone has had time to pore over the election result or coax more honest accounts of what happened out of the people involved is that the two campaigns and their allies have both prioritized field as an absolutely essential part of their overall strategy, that they have invested tens (and probably even hundreds) of millions of dollars in it, dedicated thousands of staffers to it, mobilized countless volunteers to help with it, and utilized both new and old technologies to guide the work—and that they have done it in different ways, encountering different challenges along the way, and with different effects. Social scientists have much further work to do to really understand how the process works and what it means, for electoral outcomes, and for democratic processes.

All we know for sure is that it matters—all the support in the world is not worth a thing if people do not come out to vote. Obama was the clear favorite going in to Election Day, ahead in the polls in most swing states—but such leads have eroded before in the face of an effective and determined last-minute campaign effort (George W. Bush was ahead of Al Gore by about two points in 2000 but lost ground to the massive field effort of labor unions and others supporting the Democratic nominee, resulting in the famously close result). Making sure supporters actually come out requires sophisticated planning and careful organization, hard work from thousands of field staffers, and millions of hours spent canvassing and phone banking by volunteers and people working for modest pay. If the political winds are blowing strongly in one direction or another, all this work can be in vain. But in competitive races—for President, but for every other office too—every little counts, and close elections can be won or lost at the door.

 

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark.

Robert Goodin and the Settling of a President

First the Republicans had to settle for Mitt Romney. And today, for those in both parties still not feeling inspired by either candidate, it’s time to settle once again. But is that really such a bad thing? Robert Goodin‘s On Settling, called by The Wall Street Journal a “gentle meditation on a subject that is larger and more controversial than it may at first seem”, suggests that although we live in a restless culture that worships a ‘shoot for the stars’ ideal, settling is actually how we get anything important done. Life is about choice; Goodin says it’s time to make one. If you still need inspiration to head to the polls, read his post here:

 


 

The Settling of a President

Robert Goodin

 

The story of the 1968 presidential campaign, after the dead bodies and tear gas were cleared away, was “the selling of the president.”  The intrusion of marketers and big money into politics, an increasingly familiar phenomenon over the intervening decades, has ratcheted up several notches yet again this year.  Still, the real story of the this election lies elsewhere, in “the settling of a president.”

If Dr King was the dreamer and Senator Obama the dream, President Obama is perforce the doer.  Soaring rhetoric inspires, but hard slog is what gives words practical effect.  As president, Obama settled in and settled down to work, leaving the lofty speeches behind.

As President Reagan said of naps, so too President Obama could well say of speeches:  you can’t have one every day.  Many who were attracted to the inspirational messaging find themselves bored by the mundane doing.  In one way, that is to mistake the nature of the job.  If it’s a weekly message of hope that you’re after, take yourself off to church, not the president’s press conference.

In another way, it is right to be disappointed that as president Obama has laid so very low rhetorically. Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt’s book of that title taught JFK, is the power to persuade.  Ironically, given his gifts, failing to explain and persuade people of the fundamental principles underlying his policies is perhaps the greatest failing of Obama in his first administration.  With congressional opponents who have sworn an oath of blind intransigence, appealing over their heads to the people at large is the only way forward.

As president, Obama has settled down not just rhetorically, but in other ways as well.  Any president – indeed any one of us – must settle for what we can realistically be done.  Of course we shouldn’t set our aspirations too low and settle too soon or for too little.  But inevitably, we have to accept some unfortunate features of the world as fixed, for now, in order to focus our energies elsewhere.  Attempting everything at once we would accomplish nothing at all.

The whole point of settling in some dimensions, however, is to enable us to strive more successfully in others.  Settling in every dimension is just plain “giving up.” Grubby deals are needed to get things done, anywhere.  But if there is nowhere Obama as the Great Compromiser is willing to draw a line in the sand, nothing he is simply not prepared to settle for, then the dream invariably seeps into the sand.

Citizens settle in an election, too, however.  Life is a series of choices among imperfect options.  Despite all the disappointed hopes, I will for my part settle for Obama.  He’s the best one on offer.  I’ll hope for better, if not in his wake (I do not expect to see a more able person in the White House in my lifetime), then perhaps in his second term.

 

Robert E. Goodin is professor of government at the University of Essex and distinguished professor of philosophy and social and political theory at Australian National University.

Voting matters even if your vote doesn’t: A collective action dilemma

Voting is a good example of the kind of large-scale cooperation among non-relatives that makes our species so unusual a member of the animal kingdom. In their new book Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, Lee Cronk and Beth Leech explain that cooperation is stymied by two things: coordination problems and collective action dilemmas. In their previous post on this blog, they explained how ballots solve a coordination problem by allowing people to cast their votes strategically, i.e., for candidates who may not be their first choices but who have some chance of attracting enough votes to win. In this post, they take a look at voting as a collective action dilemma: Why do we vote when our chance of having an individual impact is so small?

 


Why Bother to Vote?

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech

 

On Tuesday, well over 100 million Americans will go to the polls to vote (or will have voted already through early voting options).  They will do so despite the fact that voting takes time, effort, and preparation. They will need to figure out where their polling place is. They will need to find time before or after work or while the kids are at school to travel to that place. They may have trouble finding parking. They may have to stand in line. And they may worry whether they know enough about issues and whether they are making the right choice.

Each voter goes to this effort despite the fact that the chance that his or her vote will affect the outcome of the presidential election is infinitesimally small.  One scholarly estimate puts the chance that a given vote, even in a battleground state, will change the course of an election at 1 in 10 million.  Why, then, does anyone actually bother to vote?

Collective action dilemmas arise whenever everyone in a group would like some public good to be produced while also preferring that others in the group do the work to produce it.  The problem becomes worse whenever the group becomes large and whenever the impact of each individual contribution is low.  Voting in a large, democratic society thus should pose a collective action dilemma in the extreme.  The “paradox of voting,” as described by political scientist Anthony Downs more than a half century ago, asks why voting does not pose more of a collective action problem than it does. Clearly the costs exceed the benefits for the individual voter, and clearly the individual has little impact on the election outcome.  And yet, if no one voted, democracy would collapse.

Fortunately for democracy, many people tend to overestimate their own efficacy. One well-known study documenting this tendency comes from political scientist Terry Moe, who  found that members of the economic organizations he surveyed tended to overestimate the extent to which their own dues and other contributions would help the organizations achieve their goals.

Why do people tend to overestimate their own efficacy?  One possible evolutionary explanation of this finding begins with the simple observation that most people are not particularly good at understanding large numbers. Why would they be? Although the modern world may force us to deal with large numbers every day, for our ancestors, who lived in small groups and had no money, small numbers were the order of the day. Even today, many languages have counting systems that amount to nothing more than “one,” “two,” and “many.” Thus, even something as commonplace and essential to today’s society as voting may rely upon the difficulty we have with large numbers and our resulting tendency to overestimate the impact that our vote will have on an election’s outcome.

Another possible reason why we tend to overestimate our individual efficacy arises from an evolutionary insight regarding the way we make mistakes. Ideally, natural selection would have designed our minds with the ability always to make the right decision, accurately weighing the costs and benefits of our different options. In reality, we make errors, and those errors come with costs. If the cost of making one kind of error is much larger than that of making another kind, selection pressure on how we make that kind of decision will be asymmetrical. A tendency to make more of one kind of relatively low-cost kind of error rather than more of a relatively high-cost kind may be a design feature, not a flaw, of the human mind. This is the idea behind error management theory, developed by evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton and her colleagues. Another evolutionary psychologist, Randy Nesse, explains the idea with an analogy to smoke detectors. You might like to buy a smoke detector that only goes off when there is a true emergency and not simply when you are making toast, but in reality such a perfect smoke detector is impossible to design. Given a choice between a smoke detector that sometimes goes off when there is no real threat of a fire and one that sometimes fails to go off when there is a real threat of one, which would you choose?

Applying this idea to Moe’s observation, it may be that the error of contributing to a public good and having that contribution not bear fruit is often a small price to pay compared to the error of failing to help create a public good from which one would have benefitted greatly. Given that our ancestors lived in small groups, this could easily have pushed our psychology in the direction of erring on the side of participation by overestimating the degree to which our contributions really matter to the success of the collective action. Thus, an additional reason why we vote may be that the cost of voting is so small that it is worth paying on the off chance that one’s vote will actually make a difference. Something to keep in mind on November 6.

Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).

More on the (Overblown?) Trouble With Campaign Advertising from John McGinnis

From our Elections and Technology blogger John O. McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology, a further response to the many objections that people have to our our current campaign finance system. In last week’s post he discussed the various informational benefits to widespread campaign advertising. But does permissive advertising empower special interests? What about the potential for a lack of disclosure of expenditures? Read his follow-up here:


In my last post, I argued that spending substantial money for campaign advertisements is necessary to inform inattentive voters and that these advertisements can improve as the information about the results of policies improves through  the new technology described in my forthcoming book.

Opponents of freewheeling campaign advertisements by politicians and their supporters have raised three thoughtful concerns about the expenditures needed to support such a flood of communications.  First, many have worried about the lack of disclosure of such contributions and expenditures.  They are right to do so.  All campaign contributions and expenditures should be posted immediately and transparently on the internet so that the public can see who is supporting whom.   With new mechanisms of aggregating information, opponents can highlight the connections between contributions to a candidate by special interests and the special interest programs that he supports. Intriguingly, as I discuss in my book, there is some suggestion that special interest spending on campaigns is less effective than other spending. Better disclosure should make it still less influential.

But one still might be worried that a permissive advertising regime will empower special interests, because they will be the most capable of supporting politicians.  Of course, special interests cannot be defined as any interest with which one disagrees.  Special interests are best understood as groups that can use special mechanisms provided by the government to aggregate money for their narrow goals.  Labor unions and for-profit corporations are examples. The corporate and union form permits these organizations to use people’s funds without their express agreement for political purposes.

Nevertheless, the concern expressed by President Obama and others about for-profit corporation spending is overblown. Corporations are forbidden from giving to candidates directly and despite the recent Supreme Court decision permitting independent expenditures by corporations, for-profit companies do not spend much money for independent expenditures on and behalf of candidates. Presumably, they do not want to alienate possible customers and employees.

The vast majority of corporate spending on campaigns is by non-profits. Non-profit corporations- so-call SuperPACs– generally represent like-minded individuals banding together to expressly pursue some social vision though political speech.  They are not presumptively special interests any more than are politicians themselves.  Like advertisements by politicians, advertisements directed by groups of citizens can provide valuable information about candidates and the policies they support. They have the additional advantage that they sometimes inject information into the campaign that neither candidate would provide.

One way of weakening the influence of special interests is to empower individuals to give more than they are now permitted to do so under our campaign finance laws. If individuals could give more, special interest spending would become a smaller percentage of campaign spending. The current $2, 500 ceiling for contributions to candidates in federal elections could be increased by four or even eightfold without any serious danger of corruption so long as contributions are disclosed.

But one might be concerned that the citizens who contribute to candidates and SuperPACs are richer on average than other citizens, thus skewing politics toward the wealthy. This is the most serious concern about permitting private money to finance politics. But we must compare its consequences with the alternatives.  The wealthy have a wide variety of views. In the last election people with incomes over $250,00  a year favored Obama, not McCain, although the former promised to  raise their taxes. This diversity of views flows from the nature of a market economy. New businesses are always arising and with them people who have different backgrounds, material interests and social visions.  Silicon Valley has a fundamentally different culture from Detroit.

Moreover, if one constrains donations by the wealthy to rent the media to propagate their views, insiders who own or who have otherwise more access to the media will then gain disproportionate influence.  Journalists, entertainers, and academics lean much more strongly to one side of the political spectrum than do the wealthy.  And since their work is less variegated than that in the business sector, we are also likely to get less varied perspectives as a result.  In Britain with limitations on campaign expenditures, politicians spend a lot of time currying favor with press barons, like Rupert Murdoch.

The best way to address concern about inequality is to give a tax credit to people of more modest incomes to encourage their contributions to parties or candidates. That program is likely to expand the amount of information in the campaign season rather than contract it, as would restrictions on independent expenditures or more severe limitations on contributions or expenditures. Such tax credits would be a cost to society, but as we gain more and more probative information about policy through putting politics in the domain of computation, it is rational to spend more money to help that information reach voters.  Because the decisions government makes affects us all,  money to help voters make wiser decisions is money well spent.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.