Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turning Loose the Bridge Trolls: Closing the Open Internet

It looks as though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to do what it has been expected to do ever since Ajit Pai became its chairman: it is going to end net neutrality. [1]

For those who need a refresher, internet service providers (ISPs) are currently not permitted to discriminate against content on the internet. They may not, for example, allow their customers to access only the websites of certain companies; or, more realistically, they may not bring content from their favorite companies (the ones that pay a certain fee, for example) to their customers in a more efficient manner than they do for their favorite companies’ competitors.

The way it would look if they were permitted to engage in such conduct is that the sites of the favored companies would load right away, while the sites of other companies would take a minute or so to appear fully on customer screens. The frustration to the consumer caused by trying to access the sites of the disfavored companies would be a competitive advantage for the companies with favored sites, a competitive advantage likely obtained only through the payment of a fee, rather than, say, product quality.

Mr. Pai, it seems, is fine with such goings on, or, at least, he thinks they are none of the FCC’s business. FCC officials are taking the position that “the blocking and slowing of some content could be seen as anticompetitive,” and that such practices will henceforth be “be policed by the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department.”

One is left to wonder why Mr. Pai is so anxious to rid the world of net neutrality rules, if other existing law will effectively keep them in place. What is the advantage of abolishing net neutrality rules if net neutrality will remain the law of the land?

A similarly puzzling statement has issued forth from Comcast, one of the nation’s largest ISPs. It says that it will “not slow websites that contain legally permitted material.” In other words, they’re going to impose net neutrality on themselves. But if that is the case, why has the company been lobbying so hard to get rid of net neutrality rules? Why fight against a law that you don’t want to break?

One suspects that, barring a miraculous congressional interference in the public interest, we are about to have an internet that, in some locations at least, works with amazing speed when accessing sites owned by dues-paying companies, and notably slower, if at all, when trying to reach the sites of small start-ups. Some companies might even purchase for themselves exclusive rights with certain ISPs.

We’ll learn to accept it with the same cynicism that we bring to all of the diminishing returns that characterize our increasingly plutocratic government. But maybe there is something even more pernicious afoot.

What the free internet has accomplished like nothing else ever has is the democratization of information. It used to be the case that news and information was the jurisdiction of limited corporate sources. Nowadays all sorts of views can be represented. True, this has caused pseudo news to proliferate, but the remedy for that is increased discernment rather than institutional censorship. Shutting down the free internet, abolishing net neutrality, threatens to effectively silence independent opinion and information sources.

Admittedly, your humble servant has a personal stake in that outcome, but he is hardly the only one concerned. And there is no guarantee that the effective censorship will be limited to fringe writers, publications, and blogs. Should any ISP be taken over by an ideological interest, the result could be an entire region restricted to a single political voice on the internet. There will be a retort that such an eventuality is not likely, but does that excuse a regulatory scheme that makes it possible? 

Nowadays we hear a lot about regulations, about how we need to rid ourselves of them, as if regulations were bad things in themselves. But they are not. Some regulations are good and necessary. Rules maintaining an open internet are such regulations, and we should keep them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Repeal Appeal

And now for the latest on the Republican obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The mission was to come up with a tax plan. But the Republican controlled Senate has made sure that their version of the plan involves a repeal of a major part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). [1] The idea is to remove the ACA’s provision requiring most people to have health insurance, buying it for themselves if it is not supplied through their employment; the requirement known as the individual mandate.

The concept is simple. Remove the individual mandate, and the health insurers on the exchanges, no longer able to rely on the customer base created by the ACA, will be forced to raise premiums. That, in turn, will make the ACA less desirable from the consumer standpoint, precipitating the collapse of the system.

Now as your humble servant has explained elsewhere in these pages, the bizarre Republican obsession with the ACA derives from the fact that “the greatest fear of the Republican contingent regarding Obamacare is that it will eventually work. And it will be called ‘Obamacare,’ after a Democratic president.” [2] That the Democrats might have another success, like Social Security and Medicare, is simply unbearable to the Republican Party, and they are going to do everything they can to keep something like that from happening again. Hence, they seek to destroy the ACA, and repeal of the individual mandate will go a long way toward making that happen.

Of course, they are hoping that we won’t notice that they will have deliberately destroyed the operations of the ACA. They will say that the failure of the ACA was built into its very DNA, and they hope to convince us of same. In other words, they hope that we’re not paying attention. Doubtlessly, they will be successful to some degree.

But it is not the ACA that has a built in failure, but the very business model of private health insurance itself. The health insurance industry provides medical providers with artificially deep pockets, allowing the providers to charge more than would be feasible if they had to charge patients directly. If anything, the ACA delays the collapse of the system because it subsidizes it. 

None of this matters, however, since the Republican faction has thus far yielded no evidence that it plans to do any deep thinking on this subject. The goal is to stop the ACA before it becomes so successful that people won’t tolerate its repeal, and blame any damage done by the repeal effort on the ACA itself.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

We've Seen This Movie Before

The thinking is that “election night 2017 was a fantastic night for the Democratic Party,” [1] and it is hard to disagree. As Vox reports,

“First off, the party won convincing victories in the two marquee governor’s races. In Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) quieted pundits by defeating GOP operative Ed Gillespie. And in New Jersey, financier Phil Murphy defeated Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno to retake the governor’s mansion for Democrats.

But the good news for the party didn’t end there. In Virginia, Democrats also won sweeping victories downballot, particularly in the state’s House of Delegates — including in races that weren’t even on the radar of most electoral analysts. All sorts of Democrats picked up seats there, from conventional establishment times to a democratic socialist to the first openly transgender person to win a state legislative seat in the United States. The Republican brand was simply toxic.”

Well, perhaps, Vox is a tad elated, but no one can seriously claim that the Republicans had a good night. Hopes are high for an even better Democratic showing next year, perhaps retaking either or both houses of Congress.

That could happen. But if it does, those as old as your humble servant are ready for the disappointment to ensure. We’ve seen this movie before.

This time, many will think, this time we will finally get what we want out of government. But we never do get it. It’s as if the politicians in both parties didn’t actually give a rip about what the majority of Americans want. What we do about it is put the other party in power. We replace Democrats with Republicans, which we replace with Democrats, and so on.

It really should go without saying that we should remove money from politics, but there is something else we need to get rid of as well: political parties. Political parties are the creatures that compel our representatives to abandon the interests of their constituents in order to serve party interests. Members of Congress end up representing their political party rather than the states or districts they were elected to represent.

But how can we get rid of them? Don’t people have a constitutional right to associate with one another for political purposes?

Of course they do. But they do not have a right to government help in furthering what they perceive to be their mission. They don’t have a right to privileged ballot access, and they don’t have a right to have states run and fund their primaries for them. Even if we can’t forbid party members from associating with each other, we can certainly control how much they influence elections and legislatures. Here are some ideas:

1. Enact a law that party nominations will no longer give access to the ballot, instead requiring that every candidate for office obtain a certain number of nominating signatures on a petition;

2. Do not permit party affiliations to be mentioned on ballots;

3. Do not permit party funding of candidates or campaigns;

4. In legislatures, and in Congress, provide that any legislation moved and seconded by any member receive an up or down vote;

5. Make primaries open, indeed, make primaries for every office non-partisan, with the two candidates who receive the most votes run against each other in the general election, again without reference to party, and

6. Presidential elections could be handled in the same manner, with a nationwide primary held at the same time, but using electoral votes, the two top candidates, again, running against each other in the general election. 

It is not being suggested here that these remedies will bring about Utopia. But it will help to save us from the groupthink that only money can buy. Of course, making it so that money is no longer able to buy such things, and providing for public financing of campaigns, will also be a necessary step.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Electric Vehicle Tax Credit vs. Unstable Government

In recent years, the Republican Party, as a body, has been trying to convince us that anthropogenic global warming is a fantasy cooked up by climate scientists who are part of some dark conspiracy; that, somehow, either the burning of fossil fuels doesn’t increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or that carbon dioxide isn’t a greenhouse gas. Thus it comes as no surprise that the new Republican tax proposal “repeals the tax credit currently allowed for taxpayers who own a ‘qualified plug-in electric-drive motor vehicle.’ Under current law, a taxpayer may claim a maximum credit of $7,500 for each qualified plug-in electric-drive motor vehicle placed in service.” But the Republican plan “would take that benefit away.” [1] One wonders if they will bother to try to assure us that the proposed change has nothing to do with the interests of the oil industry.

But let us leave questions of climate change aside for the time being, in the grim recognition that those who deny its anthropogenic origins are unlikely to be persuaded by such pedestrian sources as facts. Let us instead consider the impact of the tax credit’s removal on capitalists, a segment of the population which reputedly enjoys Republican favor.

For it has come to pass that ending the tax credit will adversely impact Tesla, Inc., which specializes in electric cars, in a serious way. The tax credit, as Fortune points out, “is a big incentive for automakers like Tesla and their customers to do business together. And the proposed cut couldn’t come at a worse time for Tesla stock—with the Tesla Model 3 prepared to start shipping in higher quantities, consumers will need to decide if they want one at a higher price, should their car arrive after the GOP tax plan passes through Congress (assuming it does indeed pass).” [2]

Sales of other cars from other companies, such as “the Nissan Leaf, and GM’s Chevy Bolt,” can also be expected to take a hit. This means that these companies will have to make major readjustments.

“Automakers have factored the amount of these tax credits into their pricing, and have been relying on the government program to make electric vehicles more affordable and competitive with gas-only cars. 

“To date, incentives like the electric vehicle tax credit been largely successful in spurring both development of and consumer interest in the new automotive technology. For example, GM recently announced that it will offer 20 all-electric vehicles by 2023.”

So what is the lesson to be learned? That nobody should rely on government policies, because the other party might come to power and steer the ship of state in the opposite direction? James Madison warned us of some of the disadvantages that can arise from an overly mutable government in Federalist No. 62:

“The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice…if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

“Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any manner affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the few, not for the many.

“In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.” [3]

The electric vehicle tax credit made one set of business plans and investment strategies desirable. The repeal of the tax credit will make them less so. Is that how we really want to reward and punish the business community, by how well they predict future government action? And what impact will this have on future innovations? Moreover, the Trump administration came into office with the promise of revitalizing domestic manufacturing. How will deliberately harming American automakers accomplish that?

When you have two political parties pulling in opposite directions, each seeking to satisfy the desires of their business patrons, the result is going to be unstable government. And unstable government cannot be relied on, either domestically or internationally. 

We really need to get a handle on this. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Tweet in the Dark

Well, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., thought he would make a brilliant point by tweeting that he would take half of his daughter’s Halloween candy, and “give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.” [1] The tweet was accompanied by a picture of his daughter holding a bucket of Halloween candy, and the indicated typographical error.  

Now, ordinarily, paying attention to an event like this would be a complete waste of brain space. After all, Donald Trump, Jr. is not the president: his father is. We don’t really need to deal with the intellectual prowess of the junior Trump until such time as he is given discretionary power over the public welfare.

What’s more, it seems that we have more important things that pertain to this administration to worry about. North Korea comes to mind.

But this might turn out to be a teaching moment, and those are always good. The keen observer will note that the junior Trump has grossly mischaracterized socialism. That is true, but there is nothing unique about that. The social safety net is often mislabeled as a socialist enterprise.

But this time, at least one news source is actually pointing out the mislabeling, and, not only that, is explaining to the general public what socialism really is. Aaron Blake of The Washington Post explains, “Socialism is defined by the government controlling the means of production and the distribution of goods and services — not simply by high taxes and the rich sharing their wealth with the poor.”

As classically defined, socialism abolishes private ownership of the means of production. If you don’t see that happening, you’re not looking at socialism. Of course, nowadays all sorts of things get called socialism, almost to the point where the term has lost any fixed meaning. And the confusion of a social safety net with socialism is particularly pernicious. It causes people to believe that publicly ensuring that everyone has the means of life available to them will turn us into the Soviet Union. 

Perhaps the junior Trump is disdainful of a system that would compel him to share with others the wealth he has worked so hard to inherit. But if he seeks to educate his daughter, he should at least learn to call things by their proper names. Even if he declines to expand his mental horizons in this manner, perhaps the definition of socialism will now enter the public consciousness so that policies will not be determined, nor votes cast, based on an ongoing misapprehension. Let this be a small offering in the service of that goal.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

There Actually Is No Reason for the Manhattan Killings

Confronted with a mass killing, it seems, in a way, disrespectful to speak of anything else. We don’t want to cheapen the lives lost by airing what might appear to be proportionally petty political differences, or disrespect the pain of surviving family members by carrying on as if there are other events remotely as significant.

And, yet, regarding events of the kind that occurred in Manhattan yesterday there is little meaningful to say. A “man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path alongside the Hudson River in New York City on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring about a dozen others in what authorities said was an act of terrorism.” [1] He “was shot by police in the abdomen and arrested after he crashed the truck into a school bus and fled his vehicle,” according to authorities. He had come “to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010, and had a green card that allowed permanent legal residence.” [2]

Why? Why would somebody do such a thing? True, he shouted “God is great” in Arabic when he jumped out of his truck. And it seems that he left a note “claiming he carried out the attack in the name of the Islamic State militant group.” But those are just words that only superficially appear to carry meaning.

People talk about the greatness of God in houses of worship all over the country, all over the world, and don’t run down pedestrians and cyclists with trucks. As for the reference to the Islamic State, that conveys nothing cogent by itself, because the Islamic State isn’t a cogent presence in the world. It publishes videos showing the brutal execution of its hostages. [3] It destroys cultural heritage sites. [4] It “has carried out ethnic cleansing on a historic scale in northern Iraq.” [5] For it to go by the name of one of the world’s great religions is an egregious abuse of terms, for it is a nihilistic cult of death that is so extreme it was disowned by al-Qaeda.

Yet here is an individual, who will not be named here, who found himself attracted to that message of chaos. We struggle to ascertain a rationale, fearing that we might be confronted with the horror that there is none. But we are unavoidably confronted with the horror that there is nothing we can do about such things; we can’t outlaw rental trucks or bicycle paths. No, we are left with the bitter realization that human violence of this kind operates like a force of nature that we have yet to comprehend, that emerges suddenly without signs of imminence, and that we cannot prepare for in advance.

We will not find the answer to this in politics, for politics is only a kind of window dressing in this connection. No, this kind of behavior arises from the dark recesses of the human psyche. And we need to make a serious effort to determine what causes it.

In doing so, we must eschew the sciolism that would lead us to renounce either psychological or external causes in the fear that doing so will undermine a criminal justice system grounded in personal responsibility. Instead we must fearlessly, and, to the extent possible, scientifically come to grips with the internal and external motivations that yield these results. We need to find the way to address a sense of alienation so intense that it inspires a person to mow over his fellow humans with a truck.  

In a word, we need to find a way to stop things like this from happening. But it seems likely that we will have to overcome some cultural prejudices to accomplish it.