Well Known Biases

Politics, Economics, and the Law

Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Individual Mandate: My 2¢

Firstly, this isn’t a legal analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision. For that, please direct yourself to The Volokh Conspiracy. Go on, go. You can come back here after you’re done.

.   .   .   .

And you’re back. Now don’t you feel smarter?

Good.

So, as you know by now, the Supreme Court upheld almost everything in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in a 5-4 decision. I’ve yet to read the Court’s opinions myself, as they’re quite long, but it seems as though things could probably have gone much worse. Yes, the individual mandate was upheld, but it was construed as a tax. This means that Congress’ power to do whatever the hell it feels like hasn’t been expanded to nearly the degree it would have been had the act been upheld on the basis of the ‘Necessary and Proper’ clause, or God forbid, the Interstate Commerce clause.

So, what then?

This isn’t the End of Democracy™, the Death of the Republic™, or any other such fiery polemics espoused by well-paid pundits. It is unfortunate, but by no means the most unfortunate thing that’s happened in recent memory.

*clears throat, and proceeds in a booming voice*

And ye, the assembled politicians stirred from their Scotch-soaked napping, and they didst see: Health care was eye-watteringly expensive, and insurance companies didn’t want to take on customers who were likely to be a net loss. They were a little concerned with the human suffering, and a lot concerned that said humans would find them somehow accountable. What was to be done, they asked, while dramatically wringing their hands and photogenically weeping for the plight. Discovering the reasons for the expense, and correcting the system would be an enormous task, and more importantly won’t be done before the next election. So that’s out. They could, in their magnanimity, provide public health insurance, but no… that’s some commie horseshit. Well, what if they just forced everyone to buy private health insurance? That was some corporatist horseshit, and that’s exactly the kind of horseshit they loved.

And so it was. Instead of attempting to fix the system, there was simply a demand for all and sundry to buy into it. A band-aid for a gunshot wound.

*becomes less dramatic*

Right then…

I don’t think the ACA is going to fix what its creators and supporters hope it will fix. Simply forcing people to buy insurance, and forcing companies to insure those with preexisting conditions is not going to magically make the American health care system not a huge disaster. A system of socialized medicine, perhaps even one built only for those who were unable to get private insurance, may indeed be some “commie horseshit,” but it would be a fair sight more honest than the end run around of compelling everyone to buy insurance, thereby “taxing” the healthy for the benefit of the sick, and for the even greater benefit of the insurance companies. Health care needs fixed, but this isn’t the way to do it. And now that the law has passed through SCOTUS essentially unscathed, we’ve created interest groups who will fight tooth and nail against any efforts to change or repeal it. We’ve done nothing but made things more complicated.

Link Roundup – 06/28/12

IT World has an article about web tracking, and who’s doing the most of it.

Facebook is being sued for $15 billion over their privacy practices.

Wired reports on legislation in New York to ban anonymous online speech.

Rhode Island has just repealed a 1989 law which made lying online illegal.

The CBSA has been directed to put on hold their plans to monitor Canadians’ at airports with cameras and microphones.

Iran is again blaming the U.S. and Israel (And the U.K. as well, why not?) for computer attacks and disruptions of the nuclear program.

Senator Charles Schumer is concerned with Google and Apple’s attempts to survey the world for their mapping services. Is it the invasion of privacy? Why, no. He’s concerned that Terrorists™ will use this information to do terroristy things.

Foreign workers are being advised to keep their papers on them when in Arizona.

American fundamentalist Christian schools are using the Loch Ness Monster to prove evolution is an evil secularist lie perpetrated by godless scientists, or something like that. I’m confident they’re proving something, but I don’t think it’s what they think they are.

Netflix may be compelled to provide closed-captioning on all their programming.

Jimmy Carter states what should be obvious: The United States’ policy of drone warfare, with its regular and numerous collateral victims, is a violation of various human rights, and undermines any claim we might have as a beacon of morality.

They Shan’t be Content Till We’re All Naked and Tagged

“They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority.” – Frédéric Bastiat

Or, perhaps another quote would have sufficed; “Who watches the watchmen?”

Technology marches on, steadily introducing new avenues for oppression. And it would seem that They won’t rest until the whole of us have been examined, numbered, and cataloged. “They” seems to encompass a variety of people and organizations, all of whom appear to believe that the key to making the world More Decent is just a little less privacy for everyone.

For example, the FBI wants tech companies to provide built-in back doors for government access. Presumably, if you oppose the idea of all your social media and communications software coming set up for government snooping, you probably support Terrorism and/or Child Pornography. The rhetoric nearly always frames these sorts of things as the false choice between either “Giving law enforcement the Tools It Needs” or “Letting the bogeymen win.”

The NSA, as part of their continuing efforts to elevate themselves to the status of comic book villains, informed the Senate’s Intelligence Oversight Committee that they essentially had no idea how many Americans had been spied on, couldn’t devote the manpower to figure this out without hindering their ability to continue spying, and would consider it a violation of citizens’ right to privacy to say, even if they did know. I don’t even know where to begin. I would certainly hope the NSA knows how many Americans it has intentionally spied upon. That should be simple math, counting up the files. I can certainly believe they may not know how many Americans have been accidentally spied upon. This is an agency that is attempting to analyze all communications. All. That they’d be unaware they were listening in on your calls to Aunt Mavis back at the farm until someone told them it was happening is completely believable. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, just that it seems like a very real possibility. But that they would tell the people in charge of their oversight that it would violate Americans’ privacy to know that their privacy was being violated is some kind of insane troll logic. It’s hard to formulate a good reply, because you don’t even know how they could arrive at that conclusion.

Or perhaps we do know how they arrive at these sorts of conclusions. These are the kind of statements and policies put forward by people who firmly believe themselves to be our betters. They’re doing important work; protecting the sloppy masses from the demons that live in this world. Demons we may not even be aware exist. Their power has made them arrogant, and given them a profound sense of entitlement. Good People do Good Things, and they are Good. As such, how could anything they do be Bad? They are the Holy Paladins, who’ve turned into the demons they fight.

Or perhaps they’re just thugs. It’s probably a coin toss.

But at least neither the FBI nor the NSA is advocating that everyone be bar-coded (at least not yet). Elizabeth Moon is suggesting just that. This is one of those fanciful ideas that probably seems just swell to the same sort of people who’d advocate for more surveillance. The idea being that our wise rulers are hampered greatly due to the fact that they’re not omniscient. So, naturally, instead of restricting their powers to minimize the damage they can do, we should instead try and get them as close to omniscience as possible.

Moving right along, a company called IDair has developed a system capable of reading fingerprints from six meters away.  The current customers are, predictably, military. But the creator sees the system being rolled out for civilian purposes, foreseeing, among other uses, being used as a way to purchase things without bringing your wallet. This presupposes a system where your bank account is tied to your biometrics. This is probably one of those things that either bothers your a lot, or not at all. I’m firmly in the first camp.

Perhaps IDair could be used right alongside the cameras being deployed around twenty San Francisco bars. SceneTap is the company installing the cameras, and the goal is apparently to build demographic data so that you know which establishments you’d like to go to, when you’re out on the town. Fair enough. But if we take a stroll down the slippery slope, how soon until a system such as this would be used for more objectionable purposes? Facial recognition linked to biometric databases could be used to determine whether a bar patron is of age. Or perhaps subpoenaed for a divorce case to cast one parent’s visits to the local watering hole as evidence of their unfitness to raise children. Crack open a cold one, and let slip the dogs of well-founded paranoia.

In the name of fighting the never-ending War on Drugs™, the DEA would like to scan the license plates of all vehicles travelling I-15 in Utah. Then they’d like to keep that data for two years. This would create a record of movement that I feel certain wouldn’t stay tied to only drug investigations. Mission creep inevitably sets in, and the data would surely be used for purposes that weren’t initially considered. And when they sort out who you are, they could just track you via your cell phone, even if it’s not GPS-enabled.

Or, as Futurama put it, describing the evil robotic Santa, “He knows when you’ve been sleeping! / He knows when you’re on the can! / He’ll hunt you down and blast your ass from here to Pakistan!”

Link Roundup – 06/18/12

PC Pro has an article speculating that the U.S. government has planted agents inside Microsoft. Their take is that Microsoft was an unwitting pawn. My take is, should this be true, it’s as likely as not that they were in on it.

The Air Force’s X-37B has returned to Earth.

Now more than ever, governments (U.S. included) are peeking in on your Google data.

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes an op-ed concerning the Obama administration’s “kill list.”

$20 a month for secure communications? Sounds tasty.

The U.K., which I consider the “mineshaft canary” for the U.S., is contemplating alarmingly sweeping communications monitoring. They pinky-swear this won’t include anything like reading your postcards. No, really.

Somewhat closer to home, in Ottawa, equipment is being installed at airports and border crossings that will eventually record your conversations. If you’re bothered by this, then presumably you’re either a terrorist, smuggler, or child predator.

But at least we’re not in Ethiopia, where VoIP services have been made illegal, punishable by 15 years in prison.

Drones at Home

I don’t care for drones on the battlefield. While it is quite possible they cut down on the number of our own military personnel getting killed and/or maimed (you will hear this referred to as “saving lives,” though the drones certainly don’t appear to be saving the lives of anyone else), I believe they create an insurmountable moral hazard.

I am no happier to have them flying around in U.S. airspace. Wired reports that there are, at present, 64 known drone bases on U.S. soil. The number of drones and bases is likely to increase, and drones are likely to proliferate widely. That there would be drones, and drone bases on American soil is interesting, but hardly shocking. The military also has a great many other vehicles, weapons, explosives, etc. on American soil. After all, where else are they supposed to put these things when they’re not being used for the intended purposes? But what uses will these drones be put to, while they’re here? Well, surveying military bases, government property, the occasional disaster zone, and maybe the odd bit of completely-totally-accidental surveillance.

“Oops, it seems we’ve inadvertently spied on you. Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to get rid of that information. Hand to God. Right after hanging onto it for 90 days to see whether we can make a legal case for keeping it, and passing it on to other government agencies if we can.”

Call me cynical, but in the present political and legal climate, I see little reason to suspect the information won’t be retained, given even the flimsiest pretense of a reason. Especially when you’ve got people such as Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell saying that police drones would just fantastic.

Increased safety and reduced manpower are among the reasons the U.S. military and intelligence community use drones on the battlefield, which is why it should be considered in Virginia, he says.

Indeed. It’s vital that our gendarmerie be able to enforce order with minimum of cost and inconvenience. And while police drones, at present, are extremely unlikely to act in any capacity other than tracking and surveillance, is it completely out of reason to expect them to evolve into an armed form? Not a week goes by where you don’t read about a questionable police shooting, or wrong-address SWAT raid, or somesuch event. Are police drones something we actually want?

Not that what we want matters very much. The State will exert its will when and where it cares to, so long as we react with our characteristic passivity.

Lawfare reports that Senator Rand Paul (R. KY) has introduced legislation intended to prohibit (for the most part) the use of drones for surveillance by the U.S. government. I wouldn’t bet the farm on the bill passing, but it is nice that someone in Washington is attempting to nip this in the bud.

Link Roundup – 06/14/12

The USAF’s X-37B shuttle will soon come down from orbit. What they’ve had it doing for the best part of a year is a bit of a mystery.

James Freedmon has written a paper, appearing in Stanford Law Review, offering a strategy to help the U.S. government clamp down on organizations such as Wikileaks: Assert copyright over the documents.

The Megaupload case is going nowhere slowly. The U.S. government is now asserting that former Megaupload users may access their files, so long as they pay for it.

Senator Chuck Schumer hast gotten his undies all in a bunch concerning Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s plans to become a resident of Singapore, after renouncing his American citizenship. He has introduced S. 3205, which would amend the tax code to allow for a 30% capital gains tax on anyone “renouncing citizenship for a substantial tax avoidance purpose”, as well as barring them from reentering the United States. The text of the bill is worryingly vague. The statue is written to apply to pretty much whomever the government wishes for it to apply. I’m always deeply unimpressed when legislators craft law expressly for the purpose of settling a score with a specific party.

New York and California would like to force gun makers to microstamp the firing pins of their firearms, in an effort to make it easier to track down guns used in crimes. The New York Times has a piece concerning this pipe dream. There are quotes in the article from industry reps, explaining why this is a pointless idea. Which is nice, because it means I don’t have to repeat them.

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Kansas Embarrassing Itself Yet Again…

It appears that I may soon have to start adding “Yes, that Kansas” when I tell people where I’m from.

My fine(ish) state has managed to avoid embarrassing spotlighting for a while (well, sort of, anyway…), but it seems this situation may soon change, as the state science standards are coming up for review. You may recall how this went last time, and it’s likely as not that we’ll have a similar kerfuffle this time ’round.

Ken Willard, who would like to assure you that he’s definitely not a “crackpot,” views the standards currently being proposed as flawed, because they “ignore evidence against evolution, don’t respect religious diversity and promote secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works,” which seems like a roundabout way of saying the standards don’t give the desired prominance to his views that “a wizard did it.”

Sadly, I’ve yet to track down the full text of Mr. Willard’s letter. I’d very much like to read it, though in all likelihood it will just make me mumble to myself in frustration, as I really don’t see the alleged impasse between evolutionary theory and faith. Probably because I’m not a Biblical literalist.

Anyway, I’ll be keeping an eye on this and commenting further. With any luck at all, the Great State of Kansas will come off looking just as silly as we did five years ago.

Information concerning Kansas’ science standards can be found here: http://www.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=4972