Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Larry Lessig Boys Choir Story

Wow. Like Sleepers, but for real...

The Bush PR Strategy

From slate: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."—George W. Bush, Greece, N.Y., May 24, 2005

Monday, May 23, 2005

Real Damage from Prisoner Abuses

There were a trio of interesting articles on CSM today. First, this story on the marked decline of class mobility in America. A troubling trend that underscores, again, the danger in relying on capitalism to deliver social justice. There tends to be an implicit assumption that in a free market everyone gets what they deserve. If there are structural barriers to class mobility, that assumption becomes less valid.

The next story, a happy one for a change, discusses various much-needed efforts at reforming the jury system. As the article notes, there is a great deal of variation among the states (and some are doing nothing at all). Hopefully some of these programs will prove successful and spread to other states.

The story I most wanted to comment on, however, discusses the frightening perceptions among Arabs of our treatment of prisoners in the war on terror. The story focuses on recently leaked pictures of Saddam in his underwear. It also comments on the Newsweek Koran flushing story and the recent NYT story on abusive treatment leading to the deaths of two prisoners, as well as the light sentences and lack of high level accountability for Abu Ghraib. While the Newsweek retraction provided a high profile opportunity for the scoring of political points, I hope that we haven't lost sight of the very real problem that our cavalier treatment of prisoners is creating. These are not isolated incidents. University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin has been keeping a watch for torture stories on his blog. A sampling:

- U.S. takes hostages to coerce relatives into surrendering
- Guantanamo prisoner claims to have suffered violent sexual assaults and near drowning during his captivity.
- Guantanamo prisoner claims that Gitmo tapes would be as explosive as the Abu Ghraib photos
- Guantanamo prisoner claims innocence, details physical mistreatment
- Guantanamo prisoner claims prisoners were handcuffed naked and attacked by dogs
- 15-year-old Guantanamo detainee claims abuse
- Pentagon inquiry confirms use of sexual tactics in interrogations
- Military lawyers at Gitmo try and fail to end physical abuse of prisoners.
- Afghan prisoner, left exposed to the elements by the CIA freezes to death.
- Gitmo prisoner claims torture, assault, near-suffocation
- Mother Jones story details many claims of torture at hands of U.S.
- Navy disgusted by abusive treatment at Gitmo.
- Terror prisoners claim to have been beaten and abused at New York's Metropolitan Detention Center.
- Iraqi prisoner hung from the wrists until dead (Abu Ghraib related)

These are stories that may not get much play in the U.S., and to be fair, many of them are unconfirmed allegations. However, they almost certainly draw attention from Al-Jazeera and other Arab outlets. As the CSM story notes, U.S. treatment of prisoners is having a strong impact on Arab public opinion. It is difficult to believe that high level decisions (such as the DoD memos exposed after Abu Ghraib) within the administration are not fostering such treatment. Unless I've been grossly misinformed, these sorts of actions do not typify American treatment of prisoners in past conflicts. Moreover, it is difficult to see what we gain from all of this. There have been few claims that we've gained critical intel from this abuse, and many claims to the contrary. I simply don't understand why we aren't doing anything about this. Abu Ghraib never got any real reaction within the administration or the DoD, and all of these stories roll by without attracting any significant attention. Aside from the fact that this treatment is shameful in view of Americans' generally shared values of human rights and human dignity, it seems ruinous from a strategic PR standpoint. But no one in the administration, and few in the press, are paying attention. Whatever stupid things Newsweek may have done, that's the real story here.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Re: The Military Spending Debacle

Thanks to Joe for pointing out the continuing profligacy of US government spending, in particular on defense. I would also add that we could get rid of the failed/untested missle defense system. The Bush administration has already spent some $30 billion on this with more increases in spending requested. As Joe points out, however, who would be opposed to spending more money on the security of our nation? Worded as such, the answer is obvious. The problem of course is that government spending seems completely dissociated from the individual American. If Congress spends an additional $50 billion on defense, do I notice its impact on me? Perhaps a program elsewhere will be cut (in the ideal world) or perhaps the continuing debt will destabilize the dollar and eventually the economy. Yet I will have difficulty drawing the connection between the two. We need some mechanism to tie the effects of government spending to the individual American. If you raise my gas price by 10 cents per gallon, I would probably take notice. It is wishful thinking on my part that such an obvious link would ever be made by Congress or that they might impose spending restrictions (e.g. tying budget increases to inflation).

In the bigger picture, I worry about the ever increasing cost and size of our government. It reminds me of Windows and the ever-increasing amounts of code added without simplifying the existing code first. Inefficiency and waste only grow in this scenario. Are we reaching a point where government operations become compromised by their own complexity?

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Military Spending Debacle

CSM has an article with a broad discussion on current military spending and various proposed changes. It's really a fairly absurd situation. The article notes that we will spend $667b in the next year. It mentions that the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget proposes $53b in cuts, and $40.5b in additional spending. It also discusses the proposed base closings. In inflation adjusted dollars, we are spending more on defense than we have since WWII. Adding to the absurdity of the situation, Donald Rumsfeld does want to make cuts (as per the base closings) to manpower at a time when Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched manpower perilously thin, thus leaving Congress in the position of opposing the one budget-slimming measure of an otherwise aggressively spending administration (not to mention the always pork-barrel sensitive matter of base closures).

I think any analysis of the defense budget needs to start from the recognition that the U.S. military is light-years ahead of any other in the world. Our nuclear arsenal itself is enough to ensure that U.S. will never be attacked by any nation-state. And there is not a conventional military on the planet that the U.S. could not steam-roll over. In light of these things, Rumsfeld's plans for a lighter, slimmer military make a lot of sense. However, it doesn't seem feasible to make these cuts while we are digging deep into the reserves and National Guard to keep enough troops in Iraq.

But it seems there must be places to cut, given that we had 500,000 troops in south-east Asia with a lower defense budget than we have now. Perhaps there is something to the quote in the article that we're doing a very poor job of getting reasonable prices from defense contractors (on whom our military has grown increasingly reliant). Certainly there seems to be a disturbingly incestuous relationship between the public and private military sectors (starting in the VP's office). Some of the big ticket programs (nuclear bunker-busters) seem wasteful and unnecessary as well.

Unfortunately the current politics of national defense are such that neither party could feasibly propose any significant cuts. Moreover, it is difficult to see how this could change any time soon. There was no significant focus on fiscal problems in 2004 by either side, and it seems that budget deficits would need to take an immeasurably higher profile in order to compete with the terrorist-mania that governs politics. There is a very real argument that our fiscal situation poses a greater threat to American dominance and security at the present time than terrorists, but I don't see that as a politically salable idea. It's a bloody mess, no doubt about that.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Disaster!! ShunTV Nailed

Bastards. "The MPAA says it wants to encourage legitimate download sites instead." I'm sure you did all of the nonexistent legitimate download sites a ton of good. Thanks.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Buh-Bye to the Broadcast Flag (for now)

Just wanted to update a story mentioned here a couple months back. On Friday the D.C. Circuit shot down the FCC's broadcast flag requirement. (decision here) The court had ruled to give the challengers (library associations and the EFF) additional time to demonstrate that at least one member of their group had standing to sue in their own right. The library associations satisfied the court on this point, and the court denied the FCC's request for Chevron deference, stating that the agency had never been delegated authority to regulate hardware devices except to the extent they are incidental to transmitting the TV signal. Noting that the TV's work just fine on unencrypted signals with the demodulator turned off, clearly the demodulator is not involved in the actual transmission. The flag order imposes regulations on what the devices do after the transmission has been received, which is outside the FCC's delegated authority. As per the WaPo story, the MPAA is pissed, and I'm sure this is not the last we'll hear of the broadcast flag.. But for now, hurray for the good guys!