Saturday, June 30, 2007

Another Round of Net Neutrality

The Bush administration has fired its latest salvo on net neutrality, with an in-depth report by the FTC (actual report here). Their conclusion: let's wait and see. It's a 170 page report and covers a lot of ground. I can hardly respond to everything in it, but I would like to make a few comments.

First, the FTC does a solid job of covering the arguments in favor of net neutrality (pages 56-64). They didn't make any effort to soft-peddle the substantive arguments or build the strawman positions many net neutrality critics are so fond of. Most significantly they covered the concern that prioritization of ISP-provided content and other specially licensed preferred content would tend to recreate the walled gardens of the pre-Internet America Online and Prodigy days. They discussed the problem that lack of competition in the last mile makes the market an unreliable regulator of ISP behavior. Also they noted the argument that increasing bandwidth (say to 100 Mb/s) could make the issue of congestion largely disappear (and concerns over net neutrality with it).

The report also summarizes arguments against net neutraity (pages 64-69). Most of them are, I think, pretty weak. They raise the usual point about the necessity of non-neutrality to deal with small numbers of users sucking down large amounts of network resources for filesharing and the like. This really has little to do with net neutrality. Net neutrality is about ISP's throttling the content end of the connection, not the user end. Even under most proposed neutrality regimes ISP's would be free to throttle users (within the terms of their service agreements) when users abuse the network. They also raise the point that different types of data (web pages versus VOIP versus streaming video) may need different service levels. This again, as I pointed out in my last net neutrality post, is not prohibited by net neutrality. It's ok to give VOIP traffic higher priority than web traffic, as long as no particular VOIP provider is preferenced over another.

The net neutrality opponents argue that net neutrality is necessary to allow service providers to capture enough revenue to fund the buildout of faster networks needed for advanced services. This seems facially plausible, but breaks down on further analysis. First, if what the ISP's want is a metering system, so that the users of advanced services bear more of the cost, there is nothing to stop them from simply offering those capabilities directly to end users for a price. Already some providers offer multiple tiers of internet service. Additionally, the net neutrality model doesn't appear to be one well suited to driving growth in network capacity. Non-neutrality revenue is built on bandwidth scarcity. If bandwidth isn't scarce, no content provider pays an ISP for preferred service. I find it hard to believe that if ISP's start to have significant new revenue streams coming in predicated on the scarcity of their network resources, they would turn around and invest that income in expanding their network resources and thereby undercut their new revenue model. In a non-neutral market it pays to under-supply bandwidth.

Finally, perhaps the most critical topic of discussion is the state of competition in broadband internet service (starts on page 98). If internet service was truly a competitive market, there would be no need for net neutrality regulation, as consumer demand could sufficiently regulate the market to prevent abuse by ISP's.

The report starts off by noting how much broadband prices have fallen and how much speed has increased in the last six or seven years. Certainly it's true that this has happened, but it needs to be put into perspective. This is, of course, a business built on technology that is improving at remarkable rates. Look at how much PC's have advanced in the past decade, how much faster the processors are, how much more RAM they have, how much more harddrive capacity, how much better video processing, and how much prices have fallen. By comparison, the rate of change in broadband internet service is glacial. Or you could compare cost and speed improvements in broadband service in the US with broadband services in Japan or Korea or France, where, on a price/performance basis, we've been left in the dust. Yes, the market is improving, but it would be an appalling failure if it didn't, and the rate at which it is improving does not bode well for the state of competition in the broadband market.

The other key point on competition is the matter of new entrants to cover the "last mile". Opponents of net neutrality argue that the cable/phone company duopoly is being challenge by other service providers using satellite, broadband over powerlines (BPL), or wireless systems. Each of these technologies, unfortunately, faces crucial barriers. Satellite is cursed with poor latency. As fast as the speed of light is, bouncing a signal off a satellite down to a receiving station, then back up to the satellite and back down to the user takes time, enough time to make satellite unusable for most interactive advanced services. BPL simply doesn't appear to be making the cut in terms of cost of deployment and performance level to entice many power companies to want to try rolling it out. It simply isn't going to have the cost/performance ratio to make it competitive with cable or DSL any time in the near future (if ever). For wireless the challenge is spectrum. Wireless will be highly competitive in the market for internet service at speeds of 10 Mb/s or less. But it does not appear that there is enough spectrum for widespread use at speeds much greater than that. As people become more accustomed to high speed cable/DSL/fiber service they will find wireless insufficient for standard residential use (and for most uses that implicate net neutrality concerns). Cable and DSL can provide speeds in the 30 Mb/s range (although no US providers offer this at present), and fiber will go up to 100 Mb/s. I'm afraid we are going to be stuck with a duopoly for some time. The market is not going to bail us out of this mess (although it could if federal regulators forced the cable and phone companies to open up their last mile networks to other competitors).

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Liberalism, the State, and Free Markets

I promised last week to eventually to get to the discussion of Rorty and Rawls. For various reasons, I've decided I'd rather not. But if anyone wants to read the discussion on their own, it goes something like this: Yglesias, Linker, Yglesias, Linker, Sullivan, Douthat.

Also, before getting to my main topic, and because it tangentially relates to that topic, I'd like to throw this in. Christopher Hayes has a column on the merits of bureaucracy and the fine people who inhabit our federal bureaucracy. If you look into the details of the DoJ scandal, it's hard to be as dismissive as Hayes about the lasting impact of the Bush administration on the bureaucracy, but he makes good points nonetheless. An excerpt:
It's slander with a long pedigree--Cicero called the bureaucrat "the most despicable" of men, "petty, dull, almost witless...a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog"--but in the last forty years, conservatives have converted this casual contempt into an ideological fixture. Since as far back as the Goldwater campaign, the American right has generally found that "the government" is too abstract an entity for most people to actively loathe. It's far more effective to demonize the people who execute its daily functions. Bureaucrats are to conservatives what the bourgeoisie was to Marx: an oppressive class of joyless knaves. Milton Friedman quipped that "hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned"; Ronald Reagan said in 1966 that "the best minds are not in government" because if any were, "business would hire them away"; and George Wallace expressed his desire to "take those bearded bureaucrats" in Washington who were in the process of desegregating the South, "and throw them in the Potomac."

But a funny thing has happened over the past six years. At a time when the press failed to check a reactionary Administration, when the opposition party all too often chose timidity, it was the lowly and anonymous bureaucrats, clad in rumpled suits, ID badges dangling from their necks, who, in their own quiet, behind-the-scenes way, took to the ramparts to defend the integrity of the American system of government.


But the moral of the Comey story specifically, and of the failures of the Bush Administration more broadly, is the sublime value of bureaucracy. Not only is governance of any kind impossible without it; so too are the checks and balances of a constitutional republic. Red tape is what binds those in power to the mast of the law, what stands in the way of government by whim. That's why an Administration hostile to any checks and balances has sought to reconstitute the federal civil service as just another lever in its machine.
So, anyway, on to the main course. Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has a blog post excerpting from a lengthy article by Stephen Holmes in the American Prospect (from a few years back) on the views of classic liberals on the role of government. The basic gist of the excerpts is that the liberal ideals of individual rights and free markets are tied inextricably to the existence of a strong state to protect them. It very much reminds me of my previous discussion with Henry on libertarian paternalism and Rawls where I wrote:
This, in fact, has always been my biggest objection to libertarian theory. I simply cannot see how a libertarian state could ever remain so for any appreciable length of time. The initial structure of the government will not bind it in libertarian form, even if you had a constitution without amendment procedures. It was not a constitutional amendment that allowed the development of the administrative state in the US, but judicial interpretation. And it wasn't just uppity judges responsible for that (although I'm not sure it would be significant to my argument even if it were), but intense political pressure placed on them by political branches motivated by quite serious concerns about social stability and unrest (and rising socialist sentiment). Whether it's a Great Depression and populist outrage or rent-seeking businesses and other economically powerful interests, a state will always be subject to pressures (of varying intensities) to do non-libertarian things. The state will always have the power to do those things; it is inherent in being a state. That power cannot be ignored, and there is no structural way to make it go away. It just sits there begging to be used.

I have a strong suspicion that some of the policies necessary to keep those pressures at bay (to the greatest degree possible) are themselves non-libertarian (e.g. some level of redistributive tax policy and regulation of finances and political speech, etc.). In the end, I tend to believe that our rights (which may or may not be limited only to life, liberty, and property) are likely best protected by a state that overtly recognizes the threat of instability and subversion of state power and is structured to best address that threat, even if that structure is not a strictly libertarian one. The state may need to be more powerful and far reaching than a night watchman state in order to be a stable, free-standing system. What good is the night watchman if it ends up being overthrown by communists or turning into a plutocracy?
Tying in to the Hayes column: a robust state can be less prone to abuse and authoritarianism than a more easily captured minimal state.

One of the fundamental premises of Rawls's political liberalism is that the point of a liberal state is to create a platform for social cooperation that is the prerequisite for everyone to share in the benefits of, among other things, free markets. Libertarians suppose that you can rip away the institutions that result from this political compromise while still gaining the benefits they are meant to provide. This seems to miss something fundamental about human nature and social interaction.

Political compromise is necessary to create stable institutions, and stable institutions are necessary to enforce the rules of the market (e.g. to protect property rights, enforce contracts, settle disputes, and police fraud). Institutions that are not broadly considered legitimate will, as Rawls argues, be subject to instability, as each faction that even briefly manages to achieve power will attempt to tear down illegitimate institutions and replace them with institutions of their own preference.

So it becomes important to try to determine how people assess legitimacy. Rawls suggests fairness as a crucial benchmark. That seems to have a lot of merit. We've had Boys Weekend discussions on the topic before, noting psychological studies to the effect that people are willing to sacrifice their own benefit in order to enforce a system of fairness, even when there will be no opportunity for direct reciprocity. (I thought it interesting to see recently that humans are not alone in this behavior.) This suggests that even if a libertarian institution is quantitatively superior to some non-libertarian institution it might still be regarded as less legitimate if it produces outcomes that are perceived to be unfair.

Returning then to Dani Rodrik. Rodrik's main specialty is economic globalization. He argues that globalization promoters have been shooting themselves in the foot by ignoring populist complaints about trade unfairness, countering these arguments only with statements of the quantifiable benefits of more trade. Economists too often ignore procedural fairness in favor of simple economic gain. Regular people tend towards the opposite. Rodrik argues that domestic political perceptions of the globalization process are the key to further progress on trade. In other words, to create the social platform for cooperation necessary for global markets to expand we will require a more robust social safety net to remedy distributional unfairness and create perceived legitimacy for the whole endeavor. Otherwise the social compromise on which economic globalism is built collapses into a morass of protectionism. The market can only go as far as the state can carry it.

UPDATE (6/25): Rodrik posted again today with further evidence for his thesis on globalization. He cites a recent academic paper studying a survey of people from 18 countries that found an inverse relationship between the size of the state (measured by percentage of GDP) and preferences for protectionism. Rodrik quotes from the paper:
Our results provide microeconomic evidence consistent with the long-standing argument that the state and the market are in fact complementary. Openness and globalization can introduce uncertainty into peoples’ lives, and this additional risk can lead some people to oppose trade. Government expenditure can help to reduce this risk, and thus shore up support for open markets. It would seem that the ‘grand bargain’ that was embedded liberalism is politically effective.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lessig Takes on the Political Process

After spending the past decade redefining the academic landscape on intellectual property rights and driving forward the debate on law and technology, Larry Lessig has decided to move on to something new. His new project: to figure out why our political process doesn't work and try to fix it.

In Lessig's most reknowned case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, he argued to the Supreme Court that it made no sense for Congress to retroactively extend the duration of copyrights for works already in existence. You can't provide incentives, he argued, for someone to do something they've already done. He was, of course, absolutely right, but the Supreme Court decided it was Congress's call to make, not theirs. So now Lessig has turned his attention back to Congress, to figure out why it would create policy so obviously wrong. Lessig writes:
The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a "corruption" of the political process. I don't mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean "corruption" in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can't even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

More recently Lessig has been one of the key advocates for net neutrality, where much the same forces are at work. He notes that "our government can't understand basic facts when strong interests have an interest in its misunderstanding." So Lessig has decided to dedicate his next decade to trying to crack this problem.

Obviously it's a big problem, and, as Lessig acknowledges, he's hardly the first person to take it on. But I'm excited to see him try. While Lessig has largely won the battle on copyrights and technology as far as the academic debate goes, his work there has had few tangible results in our legal framework. This seems the obvious next step. If he can accomplish half as much in his new endeavor as he did in law and technology, it will be a great win for us all. I wish him the best of luck.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Symbiotic Relationship Between Wannabe Terrorists and the Bush Administration

Security guru Bruce Schneier has an exceedingly well-sourced blog post (also a Wired article) on how the Bush administration has trumped up various post-9/11 terrorist plots in service of security programs that had nothing to do with the apprehension of the plotters. He argues, in effect, that the aspiring terrorists and the administration have a shared interest in terrifying Americans. In reality these terrorist threats were not so terribly terrifying, and all were thwarted through old-fashioned police work, the sort that the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to convince us is no longer adequate in the post-9/11 era. Schneier's no nonsense approach to security, as evidenced in this post, illustrates just how vulnerable Republicans should be on security in 2008, if the Democrats have the good sense to call them on it. Anyone who wants to formulate a sensible, reality-based security policy should spend some time on his site. It's full of gems like this one.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Another Bad Day for AG Gonzales (Or "The RNC Ate My Homework")

I had been wondering what had happened to the congressional investigation into the RNC email accounts that had begun in the midst of the US. Attorney purge. Yesterday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released this interim report (pdf). Some of the highlights:
  • The Committee concluded that considerably more White House officials had received RNC email accounts than the White House had previously disclosed. White House spokesperson Dana Perino initially reported that there were only a "handful" of these accounts, and later clarified that there may have been as many as 50. The Oversight Committee found that there were at least 88.
  • Karl Rove made extensive use of his RNC account, sending or receiving 140,216 emails. He and others used these accounts for official purposes, in violation of White House policy--and, more importantly, in violation of the Presidential Records Act, which requires the President to "take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as Presidential records." 44 U.S.C. § 2203(a).
  • Susan Ralston, former special assistant to the President, was deposed on May 10, 2007. She testified (pdf) that the White House Counsel's Office (at that time run by none other than Alberto Gonzales) received RNC emails as part of its investigations into the Energy Task Force in 2001 and the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. According to the Oversight Committee, "if her testimony is accurate, former White House Counsel Gonzales may have been aware in 2001 that Mr. Rove was using RNC e-mail accounts for official communications. Yet is was not until six years later that the White House" instructed the RNC to preserve the emails in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.
Could this be the end for the Attorney General, or another miraculous display of his survival skills? Stay tuned ...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Memorial

For my Grandpa Martin.

From Kanakakee's The Daily Journal:

Grandpa's passing was the lead story in the Daily Journal last Monday. They also ran this obituary, and in today's paper the following column by senior editor Phil Angelo:
A life well lived

"Shakey" Martin had been in politics so long that most people in Kankakee County never learned how he got his nickname.

Back in 1939, Martin was a star guard on the Bradley High School basketball team that became the first team from any Kankakee County school to make it to state. He made the buzzer-beater shot, too, that won the sectionals.

Martin's class went 33-2 as juniors and 32-3 as seniors. Martin would dribble the ball up, weaving and bobbing like a penguin scrambling through a jagged ice field, it was said.

So teammates Lavern Hahs, Bob Martin, Harvey Hackley and Joe Dominick took to calling him "Shakey."

The name stuck.

"Shakey," 84, died last Sunday.

He was, by turns, a great athlete, a successful businessman, a community leader, and an elected Democrat who was never afraid to march against the grain -- if he thought he was right.

Shakey was an easy person to cover because he did a couple of things rare in Kankakee County politics. He would stand up and speak his mind. Piles of Journal clips, over and over, quote him on many issues. You never had much doubt where he stood.

And he would call over at The Daily Journal and say he was stopping in. Loaded with documents, he would make his point, communicating with the reporters, and through the reporters, with the public.

Some politicians, sad to say, show up only to complain. Not Shakey. He showed up with ideas.

He represented, too, a viewpoint not often seen in politics these days. He was a conservative Democrat, devoted to making sure that no county dollar was wasted. He always did his research before making up his mind. Once he decided what was fair, he stuck by it. Two decisions, from 1976, tell you a lot about his political philosophy.

In November of that year, he cast the only county board vote, Democrat or Republican, against giving a raise to the county board chairman. One month later, he was one of only four votes to give larger raises to county employees.

"Can you honestly say, without knowing what these people make, that we are paying them fairly?" Shakey said. Yet Shakey, too, would not spend dollars he though the government didn't have. He was on the BBCHS school board at a time when the teachers struck, seeking money Shakey thought the board couldn't afford to spend.

Winning a popularity contest always came second, in his mind, to doing what was right. In 1976, he took an unsuccessful stab at running for state representative. His positions, listed at the time in a Journal story: for gun control; against legalized gambling; for capital punishment; and against the ERA. Try finding a Democrat who would vote that way today.

Funneling tax dollars needlessly was never a Shakey priority. He once praised then coroner Wes Wiseman when Wiseman offered to cut his own pay (the measure failed) and called pay for top administrators in the county health department "ridiculous."

Yet it's a measure of his courage and integrity that when Kankakee County Democrats were in the rare majority for them from 1998 to 2000, Shakey was the county board chairman. In recent years, too, he led the fight on the county board against the giant landfills for Chicago trash.

All told, Martin spent 34 years on the Kankakee County Board. He spent four years as Bourbonnais Township assessor and three terms on the Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School Board.

For more than 40 years, he was the co-owner of Skelgas. He had returned from World War II as an Army veteran, taking up the family coal delivery business.

The lifetime Bradleyan was a joiner by nature. He helped found the Bradley Lions Club in 1949 and was the club's oldest charter member at a recent celebration. At age 80, he was still chairman of the Lions golf outing. He was the greeter at Bradley St. Joe's Catholic Church and president, at times, of both the St. Joe Holy Name and the St. Joe parish board.

He was a member of the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, the Moose, the American Legion and the VFW. He golfed, played bridge and would dance with his wife at the Moose Lodge. He was always ready with a handshake and a smile, completely unafraid to take his turn when it was time for him to volunteer.

He raised money for the Red Cross, the March of Dimes and the United Way. He was a great father, and excelled at what is a tougher role in today's world, being a great stepfather, too.

It's hard to imagine anyone who lived a fuller life, or anyone who was more tightly wound into the fabric of his community than Shakey was.

Professionally, he'll be missed.

Personally, he'll be missed, too.

It is fashionable these days to attack and degrade politicians, elected officials, and public servants, and more broadly the whole endeavor of politics, as corrupt, dirty, or meaningless. But Grandpa Martin and my dad will always stand as proud examples to me of how ennobling and fulfilling public service should be. America is what it is because all across this nation innumerable men and women of good will see it as worthwhile to do their part. I do not sit by quietly when I see their efforts and their sacrifices demeaned. Grandpa was a man I admired greatly, and I'd like to think that in some respect we're continuing to carry on his tradition here. It would be hard to find a better role model. I'll miss him.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Political Liberalism

A week ago a philosopher named Richard Rorty passed away. I had never heard of Rorty, but his passing prompted a round of discussion between New Republic writer Damon Linker and Atlantic bloggers Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, and Andrew Sullivan. Certainly any discussion that involves 3 of the Atlantic's 5 bloggers is likely to catch my attention, but particularly one that involves John Rawls's concept of political liberalism as heavily as this one did. Hank and I had some discussion of Rawls here last winter, but we focused on his two principles of justice rather than the general concept of political liberalism. I thought this might be a good chance to discuss it a bit. I find it to be highly relevent in contemporary politics. Whether or not Sullivan would admit to being a Rawlsian (probably not), there is a strong strain of Rawlsian political liberalism in comments like this one:
Count me convinced of the case for forgoing moral certainty in politics in favor of a shallower, skeptical formalism of live-and-let-live.

The genius of America, it seems to me, is its capacity to include people of radically different worldviews within a loose, flexible and constantly adjusting constitutional system. Given the huge differences between, say, a born-again evangelical in Georgia and a pot-smoking post-boomer in Seattle, no single cultural strait-jacket can ever hold America together. That's why we mercifully don't have such a strait-jacket, despite the excesses of the cultural left and right. We have a constitution that allows us to live together and even learn from each other in a morass of competing life-choices.
And when Barack Obama made his highly regarded speech on politics and religion last summer (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5) he went directly to Rawls's playbook for this:
This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

Rawls first gained notoriety from his book A Theory of Justice. In it Rawls attempted to develop a comprehensive political philosophy. He developed from first principles a full system of political justice and fairness resulting in a well-ordered society. But this required Rawls to make many philosophical commitments along the way. In defending A Theory of Justice from its critics (and there were many) over the next decade or so Rawls came to the conclusion that it was unrealistic to believe that any such comprehensive theory would capture the public imagination such that everyone would adopt it. This was particularly so when he considered that his theory was in competition with other comprehensive theories, namely religions, to which people tend to be quite attached. People had too many existing philosophical commitments.

So Rawls decided that a comprehensive approach to political philosophy wasn't particularly fruitful. What was needed was a way to reconcile the many existing and competing comprehensive theories already present in our society into a workable political theory. This motivated his second major book: Political Liberalism. The goal was no longer to try to establish his theory of justice as being true, but rather to make it a focal point of social agreement among a pluralistic mish-mash of comprehensive philosophies.

Rawls presents a long and fairly complicated theory in Political Liberalism and I won't attempt to sum it all up here. But there are two points I'd like to pull out:

First, Rawls sets a baseline for the participation of any comprehensive philosophy in a pluralistic democracy. Rawls requires that all must be reasonable. He defines reasonable to mean that they a) be willing to abide by rules of fair cooperation as long as others do the same, and b) that they accept Rawls's concept of "the burdens of judgment". The burdens of judgment reflect the fact that on deep philosophical questions (the focus of comprehensive doctrines) our evidence is complex and conflicting, weighting is difficult, many concepts are vague, there is much reliance on life experience and competing normative considerations. So we should expect different conclusions about what makes life good even from perfectly rational and reasonable people. Any comprehensive philosophy that cannot accept this uncertainty, that insists that only its conclusions can be true, is one that cannot peacefully exist in a pluralistic democracy. This is what Sullivan is talking about in the excerpt above (and in much of his book from what I gather). It's a simple concept, but one that went out of fashion with the rise of the religious political right, and is only now making a comeback.

The next point relates to part (a) above. As one of the rules of fair cooperation that Rawls suggests any comprehensive philosophy compatible with pluralistic democracy needs to accept, Rawls proposes public reason. Public reason is a way of talking about political issues in a language that everyone can understand. Obama's excerpt above pulls directly from Rawls's thoughts on public reason. Political actions must be taken for reasons that everyone (regardless of respective comprehensive beliefs) can see as legitimate, even if not everyone agrees on them. Actions motivated purely by artifacts of one comprehensive doctrine will not be seen as legitimate by supporters of other comprehensive doctrines. So, as Obama says, if you want to take such ideas into the public sphere they need to be reseated in principles more broadly accessible to everyone; simply citing chapter and verse of the Bible isn't good enough. Rawls argues that any argument that assumes that the listener shares the same comprehensive doctrine as the speaker (or should convert to the same doctrine) fails to respect the burdens of judgment and is an argument inappropriate for public politics in a pluralistic democracy.

Next time I hope to discuss the bloggers' discussion of Rawls and Rorty...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The 99.9 Percent

Bill Clinton's brilliant Harvard commencement speech: Part I, Part II, Part III. He hasn't lost his touch...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Blocking Innovation

As Vonage and Verizon having been battling in court since early this year over Verizon's claims of having patented some faily obvious elements of VoIP used by Vonage, software patents have again fallen under scrutiny. Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has an OpEd in the New York Times arguing against software patents. He quotes Bill Gates writing in 1991 that if early computer pioneers had understood how to patent their works "the industry would be at a standstill today."

Software has always seemed poorly suited to patents for a number of reasons. Most of what software does is fairly obvious. The really innovative stuff tends to fall into either broad conceptual ideas (like the web) that would be inappropriate for patents or clever algorithms (like quicksort) that are basically mathematical discoveries, abstract intellectual concepts of the sort not traditionally patentable. The rest of it, however complex and difficult, tends to be fairly mundane implementation, requiring little originality (but often a huge effort in coordination).

Existing patent law, in theory, should prevent unoriginal things from being patented. But in reality it does not seem to do a good job of this, particularly in the initial granting of patents. And even if questionable patents can still be challenged and overturned in court, this is a remedy of limited value to small developers and open source projects. Going up against Microsoft or IBM's legal team is often an insurmountable barrier to entry. And both patent examiners and judges appear to struggle with the concepts of computer science in their efforts to determine what is or is not an obvious development. As the OpEd points out, two of Verizon's patents in this case cover the painfully obvious concept of converting between phone numbers and internet addresses.

From the economic analysis side as well, software development is ill-suited to patents. For one, there is, as the OpEd discusses, alternative protection available for software developers in the form of copyrights. Any direct copying already gives rise to a legal claim. And copyright is, as the article notes, considerably less cumbersome and expensive. Also crucial, copyright does not create liability for independent invention, while patent does. So if Verizon has valid patents on basic elements of VoIP they can bar anyone else from offering a VoIP service until those patents expire. With a copyright they could only prevent people from actually copying their system, but they would have no claim against a competitor who developed their own, even if it worked the same way.

It is important to recall the purpose of intellectual property protections: to allow inventors and developers to profit from their investments in new technologies and innovations, thereby promoting more such investments. The need for strong protection is much lower in the software space than for, say, pharmaceuticals. Development costs are relatively low and innovation occurs rapidly enough in software that there is a significant first-mover advantage even without patent protections. As long as competitors cannot rip off a new program wholesale (which copyright prevents) and have to independently develop their own version, the first innovator will be rewarded for her efforts. Look at how YouTube still dominates over other video-sharing systems. Some of its competitors are offering technically superior systems, but YouTube got there first. The software market, before these big companies realized they could patent everything under the sun, was wildly innovative and fiercely competitive. They didn't need patents to achieve that. Patents impose signicant transactional costs and barriers to entry without adding any meaningful beneficial incentives to the software business. This system is a mess, and I hope the Verizon case will help to spark reform.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Morning In America?

I'm not sure exactly how to introduce this Newsweek column from Fareed Zakaria, but I know that it is a hugely important commentary. I can't emphasize that enough. I also can say that it very much underscores my support for Barack Obama. If you didn't read Obama's foreign policy speech when I linked it before, read it (or watch the video) after you read Zakaria's piece.

There is a strong tendency on the left right now, not without justification, to want to attack and tear down everything the Bush administration has done on foreign policy, even without necessarily having a vision of what will replace it. And there is an equally strong urge, I think, on both sides of the aisle to pull back from world affairs, having been so badly burned in recent years with our mission in Iraq in shambles, with Afghanistan beset with difficulties, with economic globalism causing domestic turmoil, with public opinion of the US heading south all around the globe. These are understandable instincts, but completely wrong.

The US needs continue to be bold and aggressive on the world stage, but in a very different way than it has been in the Bush era. We need the humility to recognize that the US cannot achieve its goals alone and that the US cannot force its will upon the global community, but we also need to recognize that the world cannot move forward on its major challenges without decisive American leadership. We need to restore the image of American idealism and optimism and hope. We've seen what comes of trying to lead through bullying and stubbornness. It should be apparent at this point that our global leadership will only be effective when people want to follow us. So we must present an image that inspires.

The politics of fear have wounded us badly. Fear debilitates and diminishes us. We need to realize how truly strong America is, and that as big as the challenges facing us are, as long as America holds true to its founding ideals there are no challenges that we cannot face and overcome. As Zakaria argues, this is the message the world needs to hear, but I think it is also the message Americans need to hear. We need to restore our own pride in who and what we are before we can expect anyone else to believe in us. We need to be unafraid to engage the world, to open ourselves and our ideas up to the world, to trust in our inherent strength to overcome criticism and meet challenges even though it may be a long and difficult road.

Too many liberals, seeing how Bush has weakened the Republicans, smell blood in the water and see this as the moment to finally crush the Republicans under their heels. Tempting as that may be, I think we cannot afford to press too far along partisan lines. This is the moment, while there is a pervasive feeling that Bush has taken us in the wrong direction, when we need to build concensus, to capitalize on that sentiment to forge a broad new agreement about who and what we are and what America should represent to the world. I think Barack Obama gets all this (although I hope I'm not just projecting my hopes onto him). I don't think any other candidate in the race does.

Monday, June 04, 2007

It's A Long Time Until the Primaries

But I watched some of the Democratic debate tonight. A few thoughts:

This was not the best venue for Barak Obama. He was pretty good substantively (although he went a bit overboard in his focus on pursuing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan), but his answers, particularly early on, were not as smooth or strong as they should be. It is a bit surprising to me since the first time I saw Obama was in a televised debate for the Illinois senate primary. Obama was not one of the favored candidates in the race (and I had never even heard of him prior to tuning in), but he blew everyone else off the stage. He can do better than he did tonight, although it would be difficult to ever match the eloquence of his speeches in a debate format.

Hillary Clinton did a fine job. Most of what she had to say on Iraq and terrorism was moronic, but that was hardly unexpected. Her answers on everything else were strong, and she did a great job calling out Wolf Blitzer several times for asking unfair questions. Her performance has given me some confidence that she could win the general election, but I still worry about whether she would actually make a good president if she won.

There are moments when I really like John Edwards. At his best he can be the most honest and serious of all the Democratic candidates, but too often he panders directly to the DailyKos brand of hardline liberalism. And on a superficial level he doesn't carry the same level of gravitas that Clinton and Obama do. This is a significant problem in its own right, but especially so for someone whose degree of liberalism will leave him open to attacks on national security and terrorism. He can't afford to come off as a lightweight. But in any case, I was quite happy with what I saw from Obama, Clinton, and Edwards as a group. Any of them would make a much stronger general election candidate than Kerry was in 2004.

As for the rest, while none of them have a snowball's chance in hell, Joe Biden did a nice job and I'm happy to have him up there speaking his part. The others were mostly a waste of airtime. Richardson has gotten some press as being someone who could break into the top tier, but he might have been the weakest of the lot (which is saying something with Gravel and Kucinich out there). Hopefully the pack will start to thin out so that the main contenders can get more time at future events (although I expect Gravel and Kucinich will annoyingly hold out until the bitter end just to enjoy the free airtime).