Politics

An alternative to recounts in close elections

Like most post-election seasons, we have our share of recounts going on. I’m going to expand on one of my first blog posts about the electoral tie problem. My suggestion will seem extremely radical to many, and thus will never happen, but it’s worth talking about.

Scientists know that when you are measuring two values, and you get results that are within the margin of error, the results are considered equal. A tie. There is a psychological tendency to treat the one that was ever-so-slightly higher as the greater one, but in logic, it’s a tie. If you had a better way of measuring, you would use it, but if you don’t, it’s a tie.

People are unwilling to admit that our vote counting systems have a margin of error. This margin of error is not simply a measure of the error in correctly registering ballots — is that chad punched all the way through? — it’s also a definitional margin of error. Because the stakes are so high, both sides will spend fortunes in a very close competition to get the rules defined in a way to make them the winner. This makes the winner be the one who manipulated the rules best, not the one with the most votes.

Aside from the fact that there can’t be two winners in most political elections, people have an amazing aversion to the concept of the tie. They somehow think that 123,456 for A and 123,220 for B means that A clearly should lead the people, while 123,278 for A and 123 and 123,398 for B means that B should lead, and that this is a fundamental principle of democracy.

Hogwash. In close cases such as these, nobody is the clear leader. Either choice matches the will of the people equally well — which is to say, not very much. People get very emotional over the 2000 Florida election, angry at manipulation and being robbed but the truth is the people of Florida (not counting the Nader question) voted equally for the two candidates and neither was the clear preference (or clear non-preference.) Democracy was served, as well as it can be served by the existing system, by either candidate winning.

So what alternatives can deal with the question of a tie? Well, as I proposed before, in the case of electoral college votes, avoiding the chaotic flip, on a single ballot, of all the college votes would have solved that problem. However, that answer does not apply to the general problem.

It seems that in the event of a tie there should be some sort of compromise, not a “winner-takes-all and represents only half the people.” If there is any way for two people to share the job, that should be done. For example, the two could get together to appoint a 3rd person to get the job, one who is agreeable to both of them.

Of course, to some degree this pushes off the question as we now will end up defining a margin between full victory and compromise victory and if the total falls very close to that, the demand for recounts will just take place there. That’s why the ideal answer is something that is proportional in what it hands out in the zone around 50%. For example, one could get the compromise choice who promises to listen to one side X% of the time and the other side 100-X% of the time, with X set by how close to 50% the votes were.

Of course, this seems rather complex and hard to implement. So here’s something different, which is simple but radical.

In the event of a close race, instead of an expensive recount, there should be a simple tiebreaker, such as a game of chance. Again, both sides have the support of half the people, they are both as deserving of victory, so while your mind is screaming that this is somehow insane because “every vote must be counted” the reality is different.

This tiebreaker, however, can’t simply be “throw dice if the total is within 1%” because we have just moved the margin where people will fight. It must be proportional, something like the following, based on “MARGIN” being the reasonable margin of error for the system.

  • If A wins 50% + MARGIN/2 or more, A simply wins. Likewise for B.
  • For results within the margin, define an odds function, so that the closer A and B were to each other, the closer the odds are to 50-50, while if they were far apart the odds get better for the higher number. Thus if A beat B by MARGIN-epsilon, Bs odds are very poor.
  • Play a game of chance with those odds. The winner of the game wins the election.

A simple example would be a linear relationship. Take a bucket and throw in one token for A for every vote A got over 50%-MARGIN/2, and one token for B for every vote they got over that threshold. Draw a token at random — this is the winner.

However, it may make more sense to have a non-linear game which is even more biased as you move away from 50-50, to get something closer to the current system.

This game would deliver a result which was just as valid as the result delivered by recounts and complex legal wrangling, but at a tiny fraction of the cost. The “only” problem would be getting people to understand (agree to) the “just as valid” assertion.

And the game would be pretty exciting.

The League of 25 Concerned Citizens

Once they made rules that political ads had to specify who was sponsoring them, we started seeing a lot of ads that would say they were sponsored by some unknown organization with a good sounding name. You see this from all sides of the equation; everybody picks a name that sounds like they are for truth, justice and the American Way, and anybody against them is against those things.

But what does a name like the “League of Concerned Citizens” (I made this up) mean? Very little. So what if we extended the requirement that, at least in the political ads, the name had to talk about how many concerned citizens they represented. You might pay more attention to the “League of 84,000 concerned citizens” than a league of 25 of them.

The number would have to represent paying or contributing members, not just people who put their name on a petition. And even so, special interests would try to game it. But still, “The Sierra Club of 750,000” would hold more weight than “The union of 84 homeowners.”

Debate moderators need to rehearse questions too

The worst thing about political debates occurs when the candidates break into their canned speeches, often repeating ones they had done before, and often when they have very little to do with the question that was asked. This happens because the candidates’ teams, in negotiating debate rules, want it to happen. They want a boring debate, because they know that while it’s hard (but not impossible) to win an election with a great debate performance, it is certainly easy to lose one with a bad one. So they avoid risks.

We won’t stop that, but some of the questions asked by Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer and those selected by Brokaw could have been much better. Better, in that they could have pushed the debate towards real answers and away from canned ones, just a little. With so many questions, it is obvious before the question is finished either what the candidate will say, or what they won’t say. There are questions you just know no candidate will answer. Some questions are better than others.

So I want the moderators to workshop the questions in advance, with a small, dedicated team of political reporters who have followed the campaigns. Each proposed question should be tried out before the reporters, who will then think of how the candidate is likely to dodge the question, or what canned speech they will give.

Eventually you get a set of questions where the reporters, who have seen the candidate speak for weeks, don’t know the answers in advance, or think the candidate might give a real answer to. Care must be taken not to bias the questions. But they should be real reporter’s questions. As I said, a good candidate can dodge anything, but you can make it more obvious when they dodge, and give them better chances not to dodge. And certainly not give them question that make you shout “there’s no way they would answer that one.”

Next, in my dreamworld, I would like to see some sort of punishment for dodging. In this case, I would give a balanced audience voting meters where they indicate “Did the candidate actually try to answer the question?” And up on the board, like a baseball score, would go a series of Y and Ns, or 1s and 0s, for each question. The candidate will “win” this score if the crowd felt they actually tried to answer the question. Obviously there is a risk that the judges would bias towards the candidate they like. Reporters, who are used to asking questions and know when they have gotten a dodge would be the best judges. I guess if I can dream, I can dream that, because the candidates would never agree to that. One of them would always fear it was going to be against their interests.

Which is why the question rehearsal is possible, since that’s something the candidates can’t control in setting out the rules. Most other good ideas their teams can stomp out.

Democrats must learn how to speak to more conservative voters

As a Canadian, and one of libertarian bent, I hope I have a better perspective on the two parties in the USA. What I see does not bode well for the Democrats. I think they understand the Republican side poorly, worse than the Republicans understand them. And, over the last two elections, they have shown little willingness to learn about it.

I think George W. Bush is the worst president in living memory, perhaps the worst ever, and that this was clear by 2004. Yet more democrats voted for Bush than republicans voted for Kerry. Why was that? Many republicans also reported holding their noses and voting for Bush — they knew he was a bad President but couldn’t stomach Kerry. Why was that?

Something that played a larger role than people think was attitude. I may get a bias because I hang around with democrats more, but they exude an attitude of complete derision. It is not that Bush doesn’t deserve derision; it’s just that it is a terrible marketing strategy. “You haven’t just supported the wrong candidate, you’re a complete idiot because you’ve supported a stupid candidate, one whom anybody with any brains can see is a complete fool.” This approach doesn’t win votes. Quite the reverse, I think it causes the other side to close ranks and distrust the messenger. Nobody believes themselves to be a fool. If somebody tells you what a fool you’ve been you don’t say “oh my, what was I thinking?” You say “screw you, asshole.” And you don’t listen further.

People change their minds when evidence comes in through their own lens. Over time, more conservatives have turned on Bush and documented the problems, and his approval rating is extremely low, even among former supporters.

Now, as a practitioner of comedy, I fully feel and understand the temptation to engage in ridicule. There is great political comedy, but there really are two broad classes of it. One class is mean, and really only works on the already converted. It just offends the rest and causes them to ignore its message. The much better class of political comedy is not so bitter and can work on at least independents. We don’t get enough of that. Political comedy should be used, but with care.

(Indeed, with care it is one of the most powerful tools. I remember how Reagan, asked about his age, used the line “I refuse to let my opponent’s youth and inexperience be an issue in this election” and the age issue rarely troubled him again.)

Election-winning comedy must be able to stick in the minds of all voters, and it must not be bitter to do that. For example, when Guliani over-used 9/11 in speeches, and comedians satirized this, it played a large part in sinking him, which he didn’t understand. But it’s a joke his people can get and not find vicious.

Democrats need to do two things if they want to win:

  • Keep the attacks civil and less extreme. Consult with good comedians to stay on the right side of the line. Encourage the troops not to be bitter no matter how tempting.
  • Hire wise former (or mercenary) republicans and learn from them how to sell the message to conservatives and independents. Listen to them.

As I said, we’re coming off a Republican administration that the public knows was horrible for the country. Even the conservatives know that. Changing power in the White House should have been a true slam dunk. Making the conservatives close ranks by insulting them rather than talking to them in their own language is the way to undo the slam dunk.

Every election will be "The election that technology X changed forever."

Pundits like to point out when some new media technology changes seriously changed politics. When I was young, everybody talked about how the Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered in the era of the TV candidate and changed politics forever. (It did indeed seem unlikely a candidate in a wheelchair from polio could win today, but in fact in Bob Dole and John McCain we have two candidates without full use of their arms.)

No doubt when radio came into play there was similar commentary.

But now it’s more rapid. So I’ll make a prediction. Form now on, the pace of change in media and the other technologies of politics will be so rapid that every election will be different in some important way from those before it, due to technology. Some of the changes will be overhyped, some will be underhyped, but there may never again be “politics as usual” — meaning politics as they were 4 years ago.

This will be both good and bad. Most interesting to me is the cost of media. In the USA, most political corruption and influence comes because all politicians feel they must raise a huge amount of money, so much that they spend more time doing that than actually doing their jobs, and they will even admit this. They feel they need to raise this money to make media buys, in particular TV ads. So anything that breaks this equation, such as formalized political spam may have the potential for great good. As for the rest of the changes yet to come, it’s hard to say how we’ll feel about them.

Can't we have a lottery to decide who gets the first primary?

Legacy politics assured that Iowa and New Hampshire would get the lead in setting the political agenda of a Presidential race. If you can't please them, it's hard to get nominated. And now they protect this position as hard as they can. Florida tried to move and got slapped.

There is a better way. There should be a lottery, or simply a rotation, on who gets to go first each time. All parties in a state would have to agree, but I can't see why not, and really all you need is the Republicans and Democrats. Hold the lottery several years in advance.

Letting states or regions be equal is probably best. I originally thought you might allocate chances by state size but in fact you don't want big states first. Only states that want to participate, and have their event early would be in the pool. Any state could participate in a super Tuesday or other such later events without having to win the lottery. Iowa and New Hampshire would not be permitted to participate in the lottery for 50 years -- they've had their say!

A rotation might be even better, though it would have to initially be set by lottery. To make the rotation go faster, depending on how many states want the position, there could be a couple of "first" slots and 3 or 4 "second" slots allowing 5-6 states to be important each time. A rotation however has a problem when one state changes its mind and wants to join the early pool.

Of course, you might ask, why not actually have a deliberative process, where the states are carefully chosen to be more of a cross section of the general public? It sounds good, but little stops this now other than party cooperation, and it hasn't taken place. Of course the parties may well feel that Iowa or New Hampshire push their opponents in ways they want them pushed, but this should balance. And Iowa is certainly not representative -- as it is now popular to point out, a lot more people play World of Warcraft and live in urban condos than are family farmers. As it stands now the parties have to field candidates who won't piss off the Iowa or NH voter too much, and that's wrong, because it may be necessary for the right candidate to take stances against the interest of these minorities.

Update: It is suggested that some states, like California, are simply too huge to do an early primary, because candidates can't yet afford to campaign somewhere that big, nor can they get intimate with the public. I agree, and so possibly the largest states would have to bow out of the system. Or perhaps they could hold mini-primaries for just a small portion of the state if they win the lottery, and the rest of the state would vote later, on a Super-Tuesday or similar. This does mean for example that the Democratic primary might be in San Francisco, and the Republican one in Orange County, surveying very different voters. The regions could compete in the lottery rather than the state, assuming the state assigns delegates by geography.

Fixing Proposition 13

Even people outside of California have heard about proposition 13, the tax-revolt referendum which, exactly 29 years ago, changed the property tax law so that one’s property taxes only go up marginally while you own a property. Your tax base remains fixed at the price you paid for your house, with minor increments. If you sell and buy a house of similar value (or inherit in many cases) your tax basis and tax bill can jump alarmingly.

The goal of Prop 13 was that people would not find themselves with a tax bill they couldn’t handle just because soaring real estate values doubled or tripled the price of their home, as has often taken place in California. (Yes, I can hear your tears of sympathy.) In particular older people living off savings were sometimes forced to leave, always unpopular.

However, there have been negative consequences. One, it has stopped tax revenues from rising as fast as the counties like, resulting in underfunding of schools and other public programs. (This could be fixed by jacking up the rates even more on more recent buyers of homes but that has its own problems.)

Two, it generates a highly inequitable situation. Two identical families living in two identical houses — but one has a tax bill of $4,000 per year and the other has a tax bill of $15,000 per year, based entirely on when they bought or inherited their house. I would think this is unconstitutional but the courts said it is not.

Three it’s an impediment to moving (as if the realtor monopoly’s 6% scam were not enough.) There are exemptions in most counties for moves within California by seniors.

Here’s my fix: Each house would, as in most jurisdictions, be fairly appraised, and receive a tax bill based on that. Two identical houses — same tax bill. However, those who had a low basis value in their home could elect to defer some of that bill (ie. the difference between the real bill and their base bill derived from the price they paid for their home) until they sold the home. There would be interest on this unpaid amount, in effect they would be borrowing against the future equity of the home in order to have a lower tax bill.  read more »

Anti-gerrymandering formulae

A well known curse of many representative democracies is gerrymandering. People in power draw the districts to assure they will stay in power. There are some particularly ridiculous cases in the USA.

I was recently pointed to a paper on a simple, linear system which tries to divide up a state into districts using the shortest straight line that properly divides the population. I have been doing some thinking of my own in this area so I thought I would share it. The short-line algorithm has the important attribute that it’s fixed and fairly deterministic. It chooses one solution, regardless of politics. It can’t be gamed. That is good, but it has flaws. Its district boundaries pay no attention to any geopolitical features except state borders. Lakes, rivers, mountains, highways, cities are all irrelevant to it. That’s not a bad feature in my book, though it does mean, as they recognize, that sometimes people may have a slightly unusual trek to their polling station.  read more »

Darfur movie, with white actors

There’s a great tragedy going on in the Sudan, and not much is being done about it. Among the people trying to get out the message are hollywood celebrities. I am not faulting them for doing that, but I have a suggestion that is right up their alley.

Which is to make a movie to tell the story, a true movie that is, hopefully a moving as a Schinder’s List or the Pianist. Put the story in front of the first world audience.

And, I suggest with a sad dose of cynicism, do it with whitebread american actors. Not that African actors can’t do a great job and make a moving film like Hotel Rwanda. I just have a feeling that first world audiences would be more affected if they saw it happening to people like them, rather than people who live in a tiny poor muslim villages in a remote desert. The skin colour is only part of what seems to have distanced this story to the point that little is being done. We may have to never again believe that people will keep the vow of never again.

So change the setting a bit and the people, but keep the story and the atrocities, and perhaps it can have the same effect that seeing a Schindler’s list can have on white euro descended Jews and non-Jews. And the Hollywood folks would be doing exactly what they are best at.

Voter turnout in contested races is the real statistic

It’s always reported how low US voter turnout is in midterm elections. 2006, at about 40%, seems pretty poor, though it was higher than 2002.

However the statistic I would like to see is “Voter turnout in districts where there is an important, hotly contested race.” This is the number we might want to monitor from year to year.

Virginia, it turns out, which had the Webb-Allen “Macaca” race, had the highest voter turnout in its history. You wouldn’t think that after hearing about the low turnout of a typical mid-term. Of course it will also go down as the first time a major U.S. politician was taken down due to blogs, the web and YouTube. Since it was so close, almost any factor can be given credit for Allen’s loss.

It is not surprising that when there is no contested race, that turnout is low. The U.S. for various bizarre reasons, has most incumbents always safe in their seats. This switch of 30 or so seats in the house and 6 in the senate is considered a major upheaval, nigh a revolution, by Americans. With seats so safe, there is no suprise there is little incentive in voting. U.S. ballots are very complex compared to many countries, and there are often long voting lines, and you don’t get official time off to vote.

Contrast that to Canada, where a public upset with the Conservative party’s introduction of the visible Goods and Services Tax (a 7% VAT) took the party from having a majority of parliament to having TWO seats. 2, as in 1 plus 1. There’s no such safety zone for incumbents, no cry for term limits in much of the rest of the world. There, if the public gets upset it throws the bums out, or drops them back to a minority position due to the fact that there are more than 2 parties.

I hope one of the major statistical agencies starts tracking voter turnout modulated by how motivated the voters are in particular districts. Of course voter turnout is the final metric of how motivated they were, but there are other, earlier indicators in most cases.

Switching to popular vote from electoral college

A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.

State compacts are like treaties but are enforceable by both state courts and federal law, so this has some merit. In addition, you actually don’t even need to get 270 electoral votes in the compact. All you really need is a much smaller number of “balanced” states. For example perhaps 60 typically republican electoral votes and 60 typically democratic electoral votes. Maybe even less. For example I think a compact with MA, IL, MN (42 Dem) and IN, AB, OK, UT, ID, KA (42 Rep) might well be enough, certainly to start. Not that it hurts if CA, NY or TX join.

That’s because normally the electoral college already follows the popular vote. If it’s not going to, the race is very close, and a fairly small number of states in the compact would be assured to swing the electoral college to the popular vote in that case. There are a few exceptions I’ll talk about below, but largely this would work.

This is unlike proposals for states to, on their own, do things like allocate their electors based on popular vote within the state, as Maine does. Such proposals don’t gain traction because there is generally going to be somebody powerful in the state who loses under such a new rule. In a state solidly behind one party, they would be fools to effectively give electoral votes to the minority party. In a balanced state, they would be giving up their coveted “swing state” status, which causes presidential candidates to give them all the attention and election-year gifts.

Even if, somehow, many states decided to switch to a proportional college, it is an unstable situation. Suddenly, any one state that is biased towards one party (both in state government and electoral college history) is highly motivated to put their candidate over the top by switching back to winner-takes-all.

There’s merit in the popular-vote-compact because it can be joined by “safe” states, so long as a similar number of safe votes from the other side join up. The safe states resent the electoral college system, it gets them ignored. Since close races are typically decided by a single mid-sized state, even a very small compact could be surprisingly effective — just 3 or 4 states!

The current “swing state” set is AZ, AR, CO, FL, IA, ME, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OR, PA, VA, WA, WV, and WI, though of course this set changes over time. However, once states commit to a compact, they will be stuck with it, even if it goes against their interests down the road.

The one thing that interferes with the small-compact is that even the giant states like New York, Texas and California can become swing states if the “other” party runs a native candidate. California in particular. (In 1984 Mondale won only Minnesota, and got just under 50% of the vote. Anything can happen.) That’s why you don’t just get an “instant effective compact” from just 3 states like California matching Texas and Indiana. But there are small sets that probably would work.

Also, a tiny compact such as I propose would not undo the “campaign only in swing states” system so easily. A candidate who worked only on swing states (and won them) could outdo the extra margin now needed because of the compact. In theory. If the compact grew (with non-swing states, annoyed at this, joining it) this would eventually fade.

Of course the next question may surprise you. Is it a good idea to switch from the electoral college system? 4 times the winner of the popular vote has lost (strangely, 3 of those have been the 3 times the winner was the son — GWB, Adams - or grandson - Harrison- of a President) the White House. The framers of the consitution, while they did not envision the two party system we see today, intended for the winner of the popular vote to be able to lose the electoral college.

When they designed the system, they wanted to protect against the idea of a “regional” president. A regional winner would be a candidate with extreme popularity in some small geographic region. Imagine a candidate able to take 90% of the vote in their home region, that region being 1/3 of the population. Imagine them being less popular in the other 2/3 of the country, only getting 31% of the vote there. This candidate wins the popular vote, but would lose the electoral college (quite solidly.) Real examples would not be so simple. The framers did not want a candidate who really represented only a small portion of the country in power. The wanted to require that a candidate have some level of national support.

The Civil War provides an example of the setting for such extreme conditions. In that sort of schism, it’s easy to imagine one region rallying around a candidate very strongly, while the rest of the nation remains unsure.

Do we reach their goal today? Perhaps not. However, we must take care before we abandon their goal to make sure it’s what we want to do.

Update: See the comments for discussion of ties. Also, I failed to discuss another important issue to me, that of 3rd parties. The electoral debacle of 2000 hurt 3rd parties a lot, with a major “Ralph don’t run” campaign that told 3rd parties, “don’t you dare run if you could actually make a difference.” A national popular vote would continue, and possibly strengthen the bias against 3rd parties. Some 3rd parties have been proposing what they call a “safe state” strategy, where they tell voters to only vote for their presidential candidate in the safe states. This allows them to demonstrate how much support they are getting (and with luck the press reports their safe-state percentage rather than national percentage) without spoiling or being accused of spoiling.

Of course, I think the answer for that would be a preferential ballot, which would have to be done on a state by state basis, and might not mesh well with the compact under discussion.

Judge allows EFF's AT&T lawsuit to go forward

Big news today. Judge Walker has denied the motions — particularly the one by the federal government — to dismiss our case against AT&T for cooperative with the NSA on warrantless surveillance of phone traffic and records.

The federal government, including the heads of the major spy agencies, had filed a brief demanding the case be dismissed on “state secrets” grounds. This common law doctrine, which is often frighteningly successful, allows cases to be dismissed, even if they are of great merit, if following through would reveal state secrets.

Here is our brief note which as a link to the decision.

This is a great step. Further application of the state secrets rule would have made legal oversight of surveillance by spy agencies moot. We can write all the laws we want governing how spies may operate, and how surveillance is to be regulated, but if nobody can sue over violations of those laws, what purpose do they really have? Very little.

Now our allegations can be tested in court.

The 17 Ontario terrorists, are they terrorists?

Of course I am disturbed to see that some of these apparently twisted men come from my home town of Mississauga, but I’m also bothered by the continuing expansion of the term terrorism.

To my mind, terrorism has always involved attacking ordinary innocents for the purpose of sewing terror to some polictical end. Attacking military targets, such as the Pentagon or the USS Cole, or Marine bases is not terrorism (though you can argue that the victims on the plane used in that attack on the Pentagon qualify it as terrorist, but sadly from their perspective, they more correctly fit the definition of what we euphamistically call “collateral damage.”)

Those arrested in Ontario, it was revealed, planned to attack Parliament and take the Prime Minister and others there hostage, demanding they pull troops from Afghanistan. While I make no excuse for their plans or actions, I can’t see attacking the very people who ordered the troops in as terrorism. (Though holding them hostage is.) You could call it treason (because many were Canadians or naturalized Canadians and had in the latter case taken an oath not to do this which they would have betrayed.) You could call it guerilla warfare if you accept them as legitimate guerrilla soldiers of that nation. You could call it insurrection. You could just call it conspiracy towards kidnapping and attempted murder. All of these crimes can offer Canada’s maximum penalty. (Which, by the way, is life in prison.)

But if this is terrorism, what isn’t? As noted, we’ve seen attacks such as that on the Cole, or Marine bases or the Pentagon called terrorist. Is the only thing that’s not terrorist sending in a ship with a flag on it full of uniformed fighters? Or lobbing a missile at a tall building with the major radio transmission towers on it, which is the first thing the U.S. does in its wars?

I should note that the definition of terrorism in the law they are charged under does not distinguish civilian from military targets. It just requires things like attacks causing serious bodily harm or death for politicial, religious or ideological purposes.

Update based on comments: As noted above kidnapping is not considered a valid tool of war. The rules of war require all captured enemy to be treated as POWs. As such, the hostage-taking part of the plan is legitimately classified as terrorist. While the leaders, including the civilian leaders at the top who issue orders to troops in my opinion count as valid military enemies in war, the role of assassination in war has always been controversial. It is however, perhaps the archetypical move of an insurrection.

Again, if guilty, these men are evil and deserve the strongest punishment whether attacking parliament is terrorist or not. What’s important about this debate is that society is using the word terrorism to redefine our laws, and make laws that punish it more, and allow law enforcement infringements of civil rights in ways that would not be allowed against non-terrorist criminals. So we must make particular care in defining the term. In particular, I hope we can define the term in a way that our own actions, and past wartime actions we approve of, would not even resemble what we define as terrorism. Civilized governments and armies should never deliberately target innocents, which is why that’s the right place to draw the line. They do, however, engage in guerilla actions, are born of insurrections, and send spies and sabateurs and assassins. They do blow up buildings with military value whether civilians in or nearby will be killed in the process. If we include such actions as terrorist, we should deplore them just as much when nations do them.

Immigration Rant

As I watch the immigration debate, I remain astounded at the views expressed by various sides. I am an immigrant to the USA, of course (of the legal type) so naturally I have some sympathies with immigrants, but the inconsistency of some viewpoints bothers me.

If you needed an argument for encouraging immigration, you should have been with me at Agenda in the year 2000. Agenda is a high-priced computer/internet industry executive conference (I used to be one). In that year, it was filled with all the people who were building all the hot new companies and the people running some of the older ones. The very people who were being held up as the engine of economic creation in the USA. That boom wilted a little bit, but there was still a lot of real stuff underneath.

Some high level government official was speaking and immigration came up. Another person at the lunch asked all those in the crowd who were born outside the USA to raise their hands. I would guess at least 60% of us raised our hands. Everybody knows that immigrants built the USA. What some people seem to have lost is that this never stopped. It’s going on just as much today.

Being anti-immigrant reminds me of racism, to use an inflamatory term. Racism is the belief that the broad circumstances of a person’s ancestry affect their worth as a person, and should affect their rights in society. Anti-immigrant nationalism is actually stronger. I was born 20 miles from the U.S. border, to parents also born there (though they were born to immigrant parents from Europe.) What moral code says that those like me deserve less of such fundamental rights as the ability to work, freedom to travel, freedom to live on my land, or to vote for those that will govern us? How can a few miles difference in birthplace morally command such a difference?

It can’t. People are not inherently superior or more or less worthy of human rights based on their parentage or the accidents of their birth. The reasons for sealed borders are entirely pragmatic, ends-justify-the-means reasons. But few are willing to admit that. This has become more true as societies move to offering not just rights but welfare and social support systems to people who live within them. No country can provide welfare to the world, so nations decide to set up an arbitrary rule (birth and parentage) to control who can get in to receive it. I’m not saying these pragmatic arguments aren’t real, just that we should admit what they are. When people get on soapboxes and decry Indians taking jobs from Americans, they seem to be saying that Indians are less worthy than Americans. That there is a moral reason we should contract for labour from people with the same ancestry or birth situation as ourselves over those who don’t share that. There is no such moral reason.

Addendum: I also think every country should encourage as many foreign students as it can. As my privacy sparring partner (but still friend) David Brin puts it, they send their children to our country and get infused with our values and ideas, and come to know us as human beings, and then some go home to spread those ideas — and they pay for this privilege. Who could possibly be against that?

One son policy

Watching 60 minutes last night on the fact that in China’s new generation, there are 120 boys for every 100 women, due to the one-child-policy and the abortion of girls by those who insist on a son, an obvious answer came to me.

Instead of a one-child policy, have a one-son policy. Ie. after you have your first boy, you must stop. (China actually forces sterilization or insertion of an IUD under surveillance, which I obviously don’t think is a great way to do things.)

A one-son policy, would obviously increase the population pressure, since strice one-child means 1 child for every woman (though in practice it is not perfect, so it’s a bit more than that,) while one-son probably results in about 1.7 children per woman.

But in theory, there would be far less aborting of girls. There might be a cap of 3 children, which would mean that after 2 girls, the parents might consider abortion of a third, but this would apply to a much smaller fraction of pregnancies than it does today. In addition, a number of couples would stop with all girls after 2 or many times even 1, both because they can’t afford more children, or state pressure still pushes them to stop. The policy would actually be that one should still have only one child, but that draconian measures would not be taken on those who have daughters who insist on trying for a son.

The key is simply to present the easiest path. Right now aborting a child based on sex is illegal, it’s illegal for a doctor to tell the parents the sex of a child, and that would probably remain true. They just have to make it so that those daring enough to break the law to identify and then abort a girl would take the slightly easier, if perhaps more bureaucratic, path of having another child.

And of course, as long as you’re not aborting based on sex, you will get an even sexual balance no matter what rules you place on when to stop.

They need to do something. Lots of evidence suggests that a giant surplus of men who will never find women will sharply increase the crime rate and cause other problems. (Though perhaps it will cause revolution which would probably not be all bad.) Already one new nasty crime of desperation has sprung up — kidnapping girls, sometimes just as babies, to be future brides. I had hoped that being so valuable would increase the women’s power, but this may have been a false hope.

A search reveals I am not the only one with this idea, but it has not yet gathered much of a foothold. Both approaches are draconian, of course, and have no place in a free society.

4th Amendment Shipping Tape

Looking at printed wedding gift ribbon some time ago, Kathryn thought it would be amusing to put the 4th amendment on the ribbon, and tie it around our suitcases.

That turned out to be hard to make, but I did make a design for shipping tape which you can see below. The printed shipping tape has the text slant so that as the pattern repeats, the 4th amendment appears as a long continuous string, as well as a block.

You can put this shipping tape on your packages and your airplane luggage. Every time I fly, my luggage gets a card in it telling me how “for my protection” they have searched it.

Now, when they open my luggage, they will have to literally slice the 4th amendment in half in order to do this.

Too bad we can’t wrap it around our phone wires, but at least the EFF is suing AT&T to stop the NSA wiretaps.

We ordered several cases of this tape for the EFF. You can get it as a gift if you join the EFF or buy it directly from the EFF Store. There is a fat markup of course, which goes to protecting your civil rights. Buy some for your own shipping tape gun, or give the gift of privacy rights to a friend.

And yeah, I know it probably won’t stop them from searching. But if, like John Perry Barlow on his way back from Burning Man, I have to go to court over it, it will be nice to tell the judge that they cut the 4th amendment up to search my bags.

(Minor note: The printer could not always get the repetitions to line up perfectly, so sometimes there’s a vertical gap.)

Iraq war kills more Americans than 9/11

Last night I was thinking to myself that we would probably see a big political todo when the war military death toll reaches 2749 — the number of people killed (not including the 10 suicide attackers) in the WTC on 9/11.

To my surprise, a little research showed we are well past the threshold. There have been 2221 U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq conflict. In addition as of November 1, there had been 428 U.S. civilian contractors killed according to labour dept. statistics. I don’t have figures for civilian deaths of the last 3 months or for non-contractor civilian war-related deaths. (On an additional note, 191 U.S. military have died in the Afghan war. I don’t have U.S. civilian figures.) Also note 189 died at the Pentagon, and 40 on UA Flight 93.

That puts U.S. dead at around 2840, well over the WTC number and probably over the 2980 9/11 total when other civilians are added.

However, the hidden reality is that number was passed quite some time ago. That’s because fewer than 2100 Americans were killed in the WTC disaster. A quick search showed stats putting the number of U.S. dead in the WTC at 2106(back when they thought the total death toll was 2800 so it’s a little high.) And that’s the right number because all this counting of American dead in the Iraq war is disingenuous to the vastly greater numbers of Iraqi civilians and other nationals killed in the war and war-related violence. So if the focus is on U.S. citizen deaths, the war-on-terror deaths now far exceed the 9/11 deaths.

Now, I haven’t made any political comment on what this means, though I am sure others will. I just found it interesting the way the real numbers pan out, in contrary to what we see commonly reported.

How much must we keep the obvious from stupid criminals

One particularly interesting argument seen in the Underwatergate scandal is the one that the NYT, by revealing the existence of warrantless wiretaps on international communications lines, compromised national security.

Reporters asked how that can be. After all, surely the bad guys knew the U.S. had the ability to perform surveillance on them, and has a secret intelligence court, and was presumably getting lots of secret warrants to watch them, and was furthermore watching them overseas without being subject to the 4th amendment.

The White House response was effectively, "Well, we're catching some of them with this program. So obviously in spite of the fact that they should know we are listening, they forget, and we learn things." In other words, the bad guys are sometimes stupid, and by bringing a lot of publicity on the surveillance (legal or illegal) we're reminding them not to be stupid.

I've seen this issue talked about before. Many members of the mafia have been caught with wiretaps, saying things on phones that you think they would know are probably tapped. This argument is used to counter the claim that since encrypting communications are readily available (such as in Skype) the smart criminals will not get caught with wiretaps.

Furthermore, in this case, while the White House revealed only minimal details of the program, security experts in blogs and other media around the world engaged in all sorts of informed speculation about what's really going on. While the NYT didn't reveal any technical details, kernels in the discussion almost surely do.

I'm willing to accept that even the smart criminals make mistakes, and get caught this way, and this will continue. So indeed, heavy publicity around the surveillance techniques and issues probably does, as they claim, instruct or remind some bad guys not to use certain communications that could put them at risk for being caught.

The harder question is this: Does that imply we must keep silent on these issues? I think the answer is clearly no. The standard the spooks and White House suggest is untenable, and there is no clear way to draw the line. Because if we use the stupidity of criminals as a standard, then it's hard to see what public discourse might not be considered potentially harmful to the exploitation of the criminal's mistakes. Yes, it's clear to see that a massive public debate with constant articles in all major media is more likely to remind a bad guy to watch what he says on the phone, more than a single blog posting would. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind.

In the end, it's a security through obscurity argument of a particularly high order. Not only must we not let the bad guys know that we can wiretap, we must not remind them after it is presumed they already know. It's hard to imagine a rule against this that would not chill speech at an extreme level.

How to deal with illegal, classified operations?

The AP reports that the DoJ is going to investigate the Underwatergate "leak" to the New York Times. Many of course wish they would investigate the program instead, but since the AG was involved in it, that's difficult.

But this puts forward the complex problem of how to deal with, and stop, illegal classified programs. Because they are classified, they lack many of the checks and balances that exist for other government operations. Indeed, it is suspected that many programs get classified entirely or in part in order to avoid scrutiny.

In theory, one does not have to obey an illegal order. But in practice it takes a lot of guys to defy one. And it's hard to be certain an order is illegal when your superiors and their lawyers are insisting it is.

Senator Rockefeller is one of the people elected to provide oversight over intelligence activities, and he was told about the NSA spying. He was also told he could not consult with the advisors he needed on technical and legal issues to make proper judgements. This is an unacceptable situation. There must be checks and balances.

I don't like secret courts, but they are better than having no courts at all. There should be a secret court with auditing power over all secret activities of the government. Anybody should be able to file a complaint with this court that the government is engaging in illegal secret activities. The identity of the whistleblower must be fully protected, as well. The court should have full power to investigate any and all classified and secret programs to find out if they are engaging in illegal activity. And it should have full power and duty to punish illegal activity by anybody, including the President. (Judgements against the President and other top officials would be subject to appeal by the Supreme Court.)

Furthermore, when the court finds wrongdoing, details of this wrongdoing should be declassified as soon as possible and as much as possible. Even at risk to national security. That's because illegal covert activities by the government are a greater risk to the security of the people and the nation than most disclosures are.

How much auditing of secret programs does the GAO get to do? Can its role be expanded? This seems more a judicial idea than a congressional one but there's no reason that auditing of illegal secret activity should not go on in all branches, of all branches.

Absent such a process, the leak to the New York Times is the only answer. The whistleblowers who revealed this program did the right thing for the nation, and should be rewarded, not punished.

Underwatergate: How many E-mails tapped?

A lot of new developments in the warrantless wiretap scandal. A FISA judge has resigned in disgust. A Reagan-appointed former DoJ official calls the President a clear and present danger. And the NSA admits they have on rare occasions tapped entirely domestic phone calls, because sometimes people calling to or from international cell phones while those phones are in the USA would see the traffic go overseas and come back again. I have made such calls to Europeans and Australians visiting the USA.

So they can’t spot those calls as domestic and thus are performing surveillance on them. But what about E-mail? With E-mail, it’s a great deal harder to identify where the parties are, and what citizenship they hold. In some cases, almost impossible.

And more to the point, E-mails between two U.S. persons will quite often go through international servers. Unlike phones, where it’s expensive, anybody who travels outside the USA for long enough to warrant an E-mail address out there can easily keep it and many do. There’s not even a big reason for multinational ISPs to avoid routing messages to servers in Canada or other places. I maintain aliases on my own domain for all my family, for example, though most of them are not in the same country as the server. I am not alone.

Further, it’s likely that the order of surveillance they have done on E-mail is vastly greater than on phones. For the NSA, monitoring of all unencrypted E-mail — all of it — would be only a modest amount of work. We used to joke in the old days about putting NSA traps in our messages, see this thread from 21 years ago on the topic, and many others if you search for it. If enough people put those in messages, it would overload the systems, we mused.

Back then we were mostly kidding around. Today we have reason to be scared. And it’s time to put opportunistic crypto into E-mail as I detailed years ago, by default. (Since then, some projects to do this have popped up — One from Simson Garfinkel and another from PGP. MS Outlook also does it, but with an untenable user interface.

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