Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Man Robs Bank to Get Healthcare

This story, from a local paper in North Carolina called the Gaston Gazette, really seems to capture the essence of the day. Well written, too. I definitely recommend that everyone take the time to read it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How to Make Local Government Sexy

This post on Andrew Sullivan's blog by Conor Friedersdorf is quite relevant to my Aug. 3 post on localism. Per its title, it is clearly an advocacy piece in favor of localism, but if anything its opening ("Does anyone pay regular attention to their City Council or County Board of Supervisors?") tends to support my point. It raises the question, to me at least, of whether this is inevitable. That even those people who are generally aware of (and potentially engaged with) national politics are often disengaged at the local level is really problematic for advocates of local government. But how would you go about promoting increased engagement? Would better online reporting and organizing make a difference? Do we need dedicated and effective bloggers in every community to bring these issues to life? And how would you promote/fund that? One could argue that people don't pay attention to it because there is a perception that local government doesn't have that much power and doesn't really matter. But I think Yglesias's arguments to that local government still has considerable impact on quality of life (through zoning and business regulations) are quite persuasive. Why is the public's perception so different? Certainly I don't have answers to these questions, and as such I am disinclined to offer much support to movements in favor of increased power for local government. I'd just like to see those who advocate that address these issues more squarely. I'm not convinced this is an intractable problem, and if concrete steps could be taken to address it, it would be to everyone's benefit. I think we just need some creative thinking on this topic.

Exploiting the National Security Fixation for Good

Blogger Jeb Koogler, pivoting off a Foreign Policy article and a John Kerry speech here argues that efforts to direct aid to flooding victims in Pakistan is too focused on security issues:
Our aid policy in the wake of this crisis should largely be constructed and justified based on a notion of shared humanity -- not merely on a narrow assessment of American interests. That Pakistanis are suffering and desiring of international aid should be enough to warrant our attention, our dollars, and our support.
This is simple enough. Of course he's right. But Americans just don't care that much about foreign aid, particularly in a tough economy. However, there is no amount of funding that appears to raise any questions in support of national security. So anyone with half a clue who wants to support a foreign aid effort is wise to cast it in national security terms. And it's not as if this is dishonest. I tend to think that on a dollar-for-dollar cost efficiency basis, foreign aid will in many cases do more for national security than investing in the military and national security industrial complex. And if that angle works, why not exploit it?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon."

Here is a very though-provoking, and heart-wrenching, article in the New Yorker that I highly recommend. As with many New Yorker articles, it is lengthy but certainly worth the time. It tees up the very personal and philosophical issue of how we face death, but it also raises issues that get to the heart of the matter on health care policy.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

(Don't) Be Evil

To follow up my post from a week and a half back, it turns out the reports on the Google-Verizon deal were more or less accurate. Google and Verizon have thrown in together on a proposal for net neutrality legislation. Don't be fooled into thinking the result is a thoughtful compromise--it is a near total capitulation on the part of Google to Verizon's demands (see here for a good "that was then, this is now" comparison of Google's positions). The proposal has been hashed over quite a bit, and I don't want to repeat what has been said elsewhere (you can see here or here for decent commentary, here for a survey of coverage). At a high level, the critical issues are: a) it completely exempts wireless from any rules; b) it creates an incredibly broad exception for any sort of managed services (allowing the creation of tariffed fast lanes); c) the non-discrimination language is so vague that it's hard to tell whether Comcast's interference with BitTorrent (which the FCC previously ruled against) would even be covered; d) the FCC is prohibited from engaging in any prospective rulemaking; e) the FCC's enforcement power is capped at a $2m fine (a pittance for the big carriers); and, f) the FCC is required to grant considerable deference to industry organizations in interpreting the rules. It is, as I stated in my last post, a devastating defeat for net neutrality.

And the deal leaves the FCC in an awful situation. Already the FCC spent so long dithering on this topic that they allowed the carriers to wage a massive and surprisingly successful campaign to lobby Congress against net neutrality (see here for an example of just how much clout they have). It's not a big stretch to think that all of those congressmen will jump on board with the Google-Verizon plan. And given how well respected Google has been as a net neutrality champion, it would not be surprising to see a lot of other more net neutrality-friendly legislators hoodwinked into thinking this is a legitimate compromise that they can get behind. Come November the political situation will only get worse. If the FCC was too timid to act before, the chances of them taking bold action now is about nil. The only real hope is that Genachowski feels so backed into a corner that his only choice is to fight back hard (I'm not terribly optimistic on this).

While I noted before that Google has real conflicts of interest on the net neutrality question, on reflection it is still pretty stunning that they did this. Google is increasingly stepping into fraught policy questions, from net neutrality, to international trade and human rights, to antitrust, to copyright (also this), to privacy issues, and others. In all of these areas, Google has long benefited from its pro-technology, pro-openness, "Don't Be Evil" image. It's not that Google could do no wrong, so much as that techies would always give them the benefit of the doubt. That makes a big difference. But no longer. Google irrevocably shattered that image in a single blow (though the constant drip of all these other issues over the past several years surely didn't help). They will now be viewed as just another mercenary big company feeding its bottom line. The betrayal on net neutrality will cost them on many fronts, and unless there is some quid pro quo from Verizon that we don't yet know about, it doesn't seem like Google got much out of this deal. It's really difficult to fathom why they did what they just did.

Update (8/16): As if on cue to prove my point that things will only get worse, the Tea Partiers just launched a crusade against net neutrality.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Can't Win For Losing

I hate to be all telecom all the time, but this is kind of big news. The FCC has dithered, vacillated, and backslid on net neutrality long enough that Google decided to take matters into their own hands and cut a deal with Verizon. Both parties now appear to be denying that anything happened. But it was extensively reported and it's hard to believe there is nothing to it. And the deal, if there was one, appears to have demolished the FCC's quixotic efforts to reach a solution on net neutrality that left everyone happy. It's not exactly clear what the deal was, but the basic outline of it seems to be that Verizon would have free rein to do whatever the hell they want with wireless service, would mostly be non-discriminatory with wireline service, but would have some sort of for-fee prioritization setup. In other words, it's a pretty devastating loss for the net neutrality supporters.

I think there is a lot of sentiment that we've been stabbed in the back by Google, but Google was never an ideal champion for this cause. They're in some sense the best we've got because they have money and prestige and that seems to be the only real currency in policy-making circles these days. They also have that nice motto about not doing evil. But they have pretty conflicted interests on this. Allowing the service providers to create fast lanes does allow them extort a cut of the revenue from online content and service providers like Google, and will almost certainly hurt Google's profit margins. But Google has a lot of revenue and a lot of money. And the other big impact of it would be to increase the barriers to entry for disruptive new entrants in the online service and content business. It would cost more to get started and increase the companies' cash burn rate, making it harder for businesses to start small and organically build their businesses as they refine their service offerings with the early adopters (which was the path followed by the likes of Napster, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, not to mention Google itself). Basically, having climbed to the top of the heap, Google can, by throwing in with the service providers, attempt to pull the ladder up behind themselves. Google will have significant leverage with service providers. New businesses won't.

So it's great that Google has been (and if its press release it to be believed, still is) a strong advocate for net neutrality, but it's worth noting that their interests don't align completely with the interests of other net neutrality advocates.

But I think the big story here is what a disaster the FCC approach to net neutrality has been. Harold Feld has a really phenomenal post on this, and I don't want to rehash everything he says. So go read it (and note that it was written before this Google mess). And I agree with basically all of that. And I agree with the commenter to that post who notes that this is symptomatic of the way the Obama Administration appears to work (which is more or less what I said back in this post). Virtually every worthwhile policy initiative has an entrenched interest that will oppose it, and the Administration is so cautious and conflict-averse they appear to be willing to let everything be derailed by endless deliberation. They just need to pick some fights, take action, let the incumbents howl, defend themselves to the public as best they can, and then let the chips fall where they may. What they're doing now is completely ineffective (if not counterproductive) and, as Feld notes, utterly demoralizing to anyone trying to serve the public interest. Hopefully this thing with Google, whatever the truth of it really is, will serve as the swift kick in the ass that the FCC needs.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Federalism/Localism Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

Matt Yglesias has a number of long-running themes on his blog. Two of them are fairly interrelated: Local government has far more impact on people's day-to-day lives (mostly through zoning and business and parking regulation) than most people recognize, and Americans tend to vote on far more issues, both in terms of direct ballot issues and electing people to office, than voters are willing to care about. Those themes collide in this post by Yglesias guest-blogger Jamelle Bouie. Bouie argues that state and local government officials are far more susceptible to corruption than elected federal officials. I disagree with his aside in the final sentence that Congress is less corrupt than we think it is (see the Lessig post from a few weeks ago on that), but generally, I think he has a good point.

There typically seem to be two motivating ideas behind pushing government authority towards state and local government: one size doesn't always fit all and vesting power locally will increase accountability. I think there's often a lot to be said for one size doesn't fit all. But I tend to agree with the Yglesias/Bouie position that localism does not increase accountability. It certainly increases the power of individual voters (you now represent 1 out of the 100,000 votes in your city instead of 1 out of 300,000,000 votes in the nation), but that increased influence has to compete with a huge gap in public attention. Not that many people truly pay to attention to national politics, but many people sort of pay attention to national politics, while almost no one pays any attention to local politics. And with the death of local newspapers (and the atrocious quality of local TV news), even if you wanted to invest in local politics, it's not easy to find good information. I think there are starting to be more blogs focused on the topic of local government (e.g., this excellent Arlington blog), but I'm not sure how widespread this sort of thing is.

So it would seem to make sense that power should typically be pushed towards the federal level unless it doesn't make sense from an administrative standpoint (e.g., zoning) or there is a compelling one-size-doesn't-fit-all justification for keeping it local. The counterpoint is to look at how absurdly dysfunctional the federal government is at present. But I see that as a separate and distinct problem in that, if we don't solve that problem we will all be seriously fucked regardless of how we distribute power across local, state, and federal government.

Yes Virginia, There Is A PolĂ­tico Loco

Everyone is no doubt familiar with Arizona's Immigration Law (Arizona SB1070), portions of which were recently blocked from taking effect by a federal district court judge. Meanwhile, in Virginia, the Attorney General has decided that Virginia don't need no stinkin' law. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II recently released this official advisory opinion concluding that Virginia law enforcement officers (including conservation officers) may inquire into the immigration status of persons stopped or arrested," under current Virginia law. In his view,
it would be most surprising if state and local officers lacked the authority, where appropriate, to arrest individuals suspected of committing federal crimes such as bank robbery, kidnapping or terrorism. State and local officers are not required to stand idly by and allow such criminals to proceed with impunity. The same holds true with criminal violations of the immigration laws.
One slight problem with that analysis--unlawful presence in the United States is a civil, not criminal, offense. See 8 U.S.C. §§ 1182(a)(6)(A)(i), 1227(a) (1)(B)-(C). (For additional support and a more detailed legal analysis, see this very helpful CRS Report from March 2009.) That distinction is critical to understanding the current legal battle involving SB1070. It has long been understood that state law enforcement officers may enforce federal criminal laws, but they may not enforce not federal civil laws unless there is an express delegation of authority.

There have been several efforts in Congress to criminalize unlawful presence (which are summarized in this CRS Report from 2006), but they have all failed. There has also been some effort to provide states with express authority to enforce civil violations of immigration law, but they too have been unsuccessful.

In the complaint the United States filed against SB1070, the government argued that Arizona's law effectively criminalizes the unlawful presence of aliens "despite an affirmative choice by Congress not to criminalize unlawful presence" (see paragraph 54). In its preliminary ruling blocking enforcement of aspects of that law, the district court agreed and held that SB1070 creates new criminal penalties that are in direct conflict with the pervasive scheme established by Congress. It therefore enjoined Arizona from enforcing certain provisions for now, until the court has had the opportunity to reach a final decision on the merits.

Virginia's AG Cuccinelli completely brushes aside the distinction between civil and criminal violations. Instead, in the opinion letter he attempts distinguish between the authority of a state law enforcement officer to arrest an individual who is unlawfully in the United States, and the authority to detain and interrogate someone who the officer reasonably suspects may have violated the law. That distinction is poppycock. The point is and has always been that civil enforcement of federal laws is left to the feds, unless the feds expressly authorize the states to get involved. Through this opinion letter, Cuccinelli usurps authority that clearly belongs to the federal government by effectively declaring that unlawful presence is criminally sanctionable in Virginia.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Word of the Day: Nutpicking

I was reading through this piece about the discussion of race in traditional and online media on Nate Silver's this morning (great blog, by the way) when I encountered the term "nutpicking." According to the link Silver provided, the term was coined "to describe the increasingly common practice on the right (and yes, on the left, too) of cherry-picking random comments or hate emails to smear your entire opposition as raving nuts." (I also like the description provided by one of the commenters: "I like to think of it as 'picking peanuts out of poo.'")

It looks like the credit goes to Kevin Drum for first identifying the practice in the wild and then promoting the name. Great term to describe an increasingly common phenomenon. I am certainly going to incorporate it into my vocabulary.