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“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government”*…

Yes, the private sector deftly turned publicly-funded technologies into commercial successes, and there was a place for individual genius in that. But those successes were also built on long hours by tens of thousands of engineers (many of them immigrants, many of whom went to public schools). The Ayn Rand image of the solo entrepreneur — Hank Reardon toiling alone in his laboratory to invent a new kind of steel — is a pernicious deception.

Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement. The opportunity for success attracts the ambitious and those willing to work hard, like my parents, along with millions of others who land on American shores. But the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamoured with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it…

The efficiency of public-sector programmes can be seen all the time. An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes. In exchange, that family gets roads, public schools, environmental protection, national security, fire, and police. Try assembling that as a package of private services and see what it costs.

Antipathy to government institutions is often called “conservatism,” but it bears no resemblance to any principled tradition by that name. Conservatism is rooted in a respect for institutions. Its intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke, wrote, “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The observation comes from his most famous work, a criticism of the anti-institutional, pro-individualism of the French Revolution and the bloody terror that followed. There is plenty to criticise about the American administrative state, but idolatry of the individual is hardly a true “conservative” critique.

Nor can the current, degraded notion of freedom be found in the works of America’s founders. The premise of the Declaration of Independence is not simply that our rights are “self-evident” but that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is to say, the founders respected “government” — they saw the state as a vehicle to guarantee freedom. In the years after the American Revolution, those who fought for liberty spent the rest of their lives progressively strengthening the central government they had formed in order to secure that freedom. Their legacy is the stability and prosperity we have come to take for granted. The exaggerated emphasis on individualism imperils their achievements.

In the U.S., Covid-19 did not find an exceptional country. Instead, the virus found a land of individuals — too many of them poor, overweight, under-educated, and overly imprisoned. It found underfunded institutions and a population teeming with a sense of entitlement rather than community.

What separated America from countries that staunched Covid-19 is neither size nor geography. China has the world’s largest population (Wuhan has more people than New York City). And though many countries that did well are islands, oceans offer scant protection from a pandemic. (The first person to die of Covid-19 in Iceland was an Australian, and the virus reached America from China and Europe, not Mexico or Canada.) No common political system or cultural tradition links the successful countries.

America’s response was inept because the institutions designed to protect the public failed or were enfeebled. At almost every level of society, people chose individual convenience over collective well-being.

What can be done to reverse the country’s self-destructive course, and to repair and prepare? America should use the pandemic as a turning point for renewal. Just as the human immune system develops antibodies from one viral infection to fight off another, Covid-19 presents us with the opportunity to build “societal antibodies” — practices to fend off the contagious disease of selfishness.

The country needs a “Corona Corps.” Similar to the armed forces or the Peace Corps, it would consist of people largely aged 18 to 24, trained and equipped to fight the virus. The Corps would conduct contact tracing, staff testing, and vaccination centers, and work with people required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear. Corona Corps members could not only be paid but could also earn credits to reduce tuition and lower their debt — as well as gain experiences that serve as an on-ramp to jobs post-graduation.Once the virus is tamed, we should transition Corona Corps into a robust national service programme. 

A second reform is our tax system — a government function that is fundamental to all public programmes, but which has been ravaged by our disregard for the state institutions. Allowing the super-wealthy 0.1 percent to enjoy a greater share of spoils while we cut their taxes is not the hallmark of a functioning society. 

Regardless of the tax rules we adopt, administering them requires an efficient institution — and America’s Internal Revenue Service has been severely underfunded. A recent congressional report estimated that a $100bn investment in tax enforcement would take in $1.2trn — yes, trillion — in revenue over the next decade.

But the bigger point is that we must pursue a cultural shift: a renewed recognition of the value of institutions, and of the balance between the individual and the community in a prosperous society. Certainly, people should complain about the arcane and sometimes onerous regulations that hamper entrepreneurship — at the point of contact, institutions often feel like friction, like something to be avoided. Yet we must also recognise that beyond disagreements over the size and specifics of government institutions, those institutions are essential and honourable — as are the people who serve in them.

Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community. 

An excerpt from an essay by Scott Galloway (@profgalloway): “Institutions,” eminently worth reading in full. Indeed, this piece is a slightly-abridged version of “Scott Galloway on recasting American individualism and institutions” in The Economist (but behind their paywall).

See also the apposite (but differently-focused) piece by Scott’s NYU colleague, Davis Stasavage: “Lessons from all democracies.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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As we seek a middle path, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE, that Casca and Cassius decided that Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) should not be killed with his ally Julius Caesar in the assassination planned for the next day; rather, that he should be waylaid so as not be in Senate at the time. It was the conspirators’ undoing.

They believed Caesar’s death would restore the Republic. But Caesar had been immensely popular with the Roman middle and lower classes, who became enraged upon learning a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, as the sole consul, soon took the initiative and seized the state treasury. Calpurnia, Caesar’s widow, presented him with Caesar’s personal papers and custody of his extensive property, clearly marking him as Caesar’s heir and leader of the Caesarian faction. Antony negotiated a crafty compromise with the conspirators… then, on March 20th, gave his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral– which ended with Antony’s brandishing of Caesar’s blood-satined toga… Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, most of the conspirators fled Italy. The few remaining– including Brutus and Cassius– were assigned distant (and relatively menial) posts in Sicily and Asia by Antony “for their own protection”; insulted, they fled instead to Greece.

George Edward Robertson, “Marc Antony’s Oration at Caesar’s Funeral”

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“All history is the history of unintended consequences”*…

Your correspondent confesses that this piece is mildly geeky in an “inside baseball” kind of way. But beyond its importance in its own right, it raises a possible broader systemic issue worth pondering…

Urged on by broadband giants such as Charter Communications, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is pushing to confirm a Republican to the Federal Communications Commission. However, McConnell’s goal seems to extend further: creating a deadlocked Biden FCC 2–2, then blocking confirmation of a third Democrat. What McConnell intends as a gift to his corporate patrons could turn into a nightmare for them.

McConnell and his allies believe they can force the Biden FCC into a business friendly “consensus agenda” that will move forward on 5G and corporate consolidation while blocking Democratic priorities such as net neutrality and broadband subsidies for the poor. And perhaps that is how the Democrats will respond. But in this new world of total war between Democrats and Republicans, this deadlock creates the incentive and ability for the Democratic FCC Chair to use her authority over the agency’s bureaus to push back and pressure anyone standing in the way of a full commission.

Not everything at the FCC requires a vote of the Commission. The vast majority of day-to-day work happens through the FCC’s many offices and bureaus — all of which report to the Chair. These actions must be appealed to the full Commission before parties can go to the courts. Absent the usual rulemaking process, a Democratic FCC Chair can — and should — take large (and largely unreviewable) steps to advance a consumer protection agenda without a single Commission vote.

Even more powerfully, the Chair can effectively shut down the agency until Republicans approve a third Democrat. While this sounds like an industry dream, this would quickly devolve into an industry nightmare as the necessary work of the FCC grinds to a halt. Virtually every acquisition by a cable provider, wireless carrier, or broadcaster requires FCC approval. Unlike in antitrust law, there is no deadline for the agency to act. The Chair of a deadlocked FCC could simply freeze all mergers and acquisitions in the sector until Democrats have a majority.

If that does not work, the FCC Chair could essentially put the FCC “on strike,” cancelling upcoming spectrum auctions and suspending consumer electronics certifications (no electronic equipment of any type, from smartphones to home computers to microwave ovens, can be sold in the United States without a certification from the FCC that it will not interfere with wireless communications). Such actions would have wide repercussions for the wireless, electronics, and retail industries. But the FCC Chair could slowly ratchet up the pressure until industry lobbyists pushed Republicans to confirm a third Democrat.

Finally, we come to net neutrality. Stopping the Biden FCC from restoring the Obama-era legal framework for broadband is the grand prize that supposedly justifies McConnell’s unprecedented obstructionism. Even here, the next FCC Chair can act. At present, the FCC is suing the state of California to block California’s own net neutrality law. The FCC can switch sides in the litigation, throwing its weight against the industry and supporting the right of states to pass their own net neutrality laws. The FCC can do the same in the D.C. Circuit — no Commission vote required.

Political observers might question whether a Biden FCC Chair would take such brazenly political action and put at risk so much of the economy. Admittedly, Democrats often seem to lack the same willingness as Republicans to engage in Mutually Assured Destruction. But we live in a time of unprecedented polarization and partisan division — as the last-minute campaign to deadlock the FCC shows. The only way for President-elect Biden and Democrats to work with Republicans is to show them at the outset that they can be just as destructive to Republican interests and constituencies as Republicans are to Democratic interests and constituencies. And there’s no better way to do that than to threaten the corporate chieftains at the top of the Republican food chain, the ones currently urging Republicans to deadlock the FCC.

Rather than an industry-friendly “consensus agenda,” Senator McConnell and his Wall Street allies are setting the stage for a war of total destruction. Wise investors should sell now and wait for the dust to clear — if it ever does.

Harold Feld (@haroldfeld), Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge, on how Senator McConnell’s strategy of obstruction might backfire: “In the Republican War on the Biden FCC, Wall Street May End Up the Biggest Loser.”

* historian T.J. Jackson Lears

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As we focus on Georgia, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of the 58 members of the U.N. at the time, 48 voted in favor, none against, eight abstained, and two did not vote. Considered a foundational text in the history of human and civil rights, the Declaration consists of 30 articles detailing an individual’s “basic rights and fundamental freedoms” and affirming their universal character as inherent, inalienable, and applicable to all human beings.

The full text– eminently worth reading– is here.

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“There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: ‘I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.'”*…

 

McKinsey

 

 

McKinsey has a lot of high-flying rhetoric about strategy, sustainability, and social justice. The company ostensibly pursues intellectual and business excellence, while also using its people skills to help Syrian refugees. That’s nice.

But let’s start with what McKinsey is really about, which is getting organizational leaders to pay a large amount of money for fairly pedestrian advice. In MacDougall’s article on McKinsey’s work on immigration, most of the conversation has been about McKinsey’s push to engage in cruel behavior towards detainees. But let’s not lose sight of the incentive driving the relationship, which was McKinsey’s political ability to extract cash from the government. Here’s the nub of that part of the story.

The consulting firm’s sway at ICE grew to the point that McKinsey’s staff even ghostwrote a government contracting document that defined the consulting team’s own responsibilities and justified the firm’s retention, a contract extension worth $2.2 million. “Can they do that?” an ICE official wrote to a contracting officer in May 2017.

The response reflects how deeply ICE had come to rely on McKinsey’s assistance. “Well it obviously isn’t ideal to have a contractor tell us what we want to ask them to do,” the contracting officer replied. But unless someone from the government could articulate the agency’s objectives, the officer added, “what other option is there?” ICE extended the contract.

Such practices used to be called “honest graft.” And let’s be clear, McKinsey’s services are very expensive. Back in August, I noted that McKinsey’s competitor, the Boston Consulting Group, charges the government $33,063.75/week for the time of a recent college grad to work as a contractor. Not to be outdone, McKinsey’s pricing is much much higher, with one McKinsey “business analyst” – someone with an undergraduate degree and no experience – lent to the government priced out at $56,707/week, or $2,948,764/year.

How does McKinsey do it? There are two answers…

The estimable Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) explains: “Why Taxpayers Pay McKinsey $3M a Year for a Recent College Graduate Contractor.”

See also: “How McKinsey Makes Its Own Rules.”

[Image above: source]

* “Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”  —  George Washington Plunkitt, New York State Senator and “Sage of Tammany Hall

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As we reconsider consultants, we might recall that it was on this date in 2010 that Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, despondent after the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides, set himself afire in his home town of Sidi Bouzid… a central catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution— the Jasmine Revolution– and the wider Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic regimes throughout the region.

220px-Mohamed_Bouazizi_2 source

 

“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”*…

 

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Diagram of U.S. governance, 1862 [source and larger version]

 

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently…

Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow…

Critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist Eliot Peper (@eliotpeper) argues for regular maintenance and upgrades: “Government is a technology, so fix it like one.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we undertake an upgrade, we might spare a thought for Marcus Tullius Cicero; he died on this date in 43 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.  His influence on the Latin language was immense: it has been said that subsequent prose was either a reaction against or a return to his style, not only in Latin but also (after Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s work) in European languages up to the 19th century.

A champion of Republican government in Rome, he spoke against the second Catilinarian conspiracy, against  Julius Caesar, then– even more eloquently– against Mark Antony.  He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated and displayed to the public) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony and calling (again) for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor?

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

 

Written by LW

December 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is”*…

 

Government

 

In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.

In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen ⁠— and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.

While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.

Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?…

More (including explanations of the methodology and categories used) at “Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government.” (For perspectives on the caution at the end of the quoted passage above, see here and here.)

* Thomas Jefferson’s harsh verdict, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

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As we organize our thoughts about social organization, we might recall that it was on this date that President Millard Fillmore signed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, it heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy” by required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law”, for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.  Since a suspected slave had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery. (The film 12 Years a Slave was based on one such abduction– the kidnapping and bondage of Solomon Northrup.)

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An 1851 poster warned the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers

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Written by LW

September 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

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