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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gun control by GPS, RFID, Fingerprints -- Sample Letter to Congress


As usual, when I think of a solution to a problem (see, e.g., my "invade Switzerland" post), someone else has gone there before me.  This time, after considering the Connecticut school shooting tragedy -- carried out by possibly-autistic-graduated-from-high-school-three-years-early-wicked-smart-doesn't-make-eye-contact-20-year-old Adam Lanza (now deceased) -- the idea of putting a GPS microchip in ALL guns occurred to me.

I don't want to seem callous.  Before going further, let me assure my readers that just thinking about this shooting devastates me anew every time.  Although I haven't actually seen any image, my brain conjures them up and it is painful beyond description.  I have raised or helped raise 5 different kids through that age and it is truly an age of innocence and wonder.  The whole thing just make me sick beyond words.

Back to the GPS-on-guns point.  I just googled it, and it's not an automatically-filled-in google search, but some hits come up.  Here's the first one, from "thetruthaboutguns.com", in March 2011.  Apparently legislation has even been proposed (in Massachusetts) to "study" the feasibility of GPS chips in guns.  In other words, it's obvious that true legislation on this is politically infeasible, but at least some politicians have had the guts to propose a study, to perhaps show that this might be a viable method of preventing -- or minimizing the damage -- done by some of these tragedies.  And of course, another byproduct would be that many many other gun crimes would become much easier to solve.

Let's start by acknowledging that there are technical problems to using a GPS tracker that might still take years to overcome.  GPS tracking devices use power, and so need batteries, and the batteries will eventually need to be recharged.  Currently, an emitter sending a regular GPS signal on a regular battery will only last a day or so before needing a recharge. And even I don't think it makes sense to put the onus of keeping the GPS device charged on the gun-owners.  They'd simply let the charge run out before going on their shooting spree.

The other option is the idea of putting a RFID chip -- a transponder that can be read by an external reader, e.g. like what stores put on their merchandise, and what's inside an EZ Pass -- and then have readers all over the place (e.g. on telephone poles), especially near schools and malls.  The readers would feed their information into a program that would be able to detect if the gun is moving in an unusual manner, e.g. toward a school.

The only "downside" to something like this (as explained in the blog) is that the government will be able to track the movements of people who are carrying guns.  I don't trust the government any more than the next guy, but I have no problem with the government knowing where all the guns are.  Sorry, I just don't.  If you're using or carrying your gun legally (as Barack Obama says the Second Amendment gives you the right to do), then that's fine, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't know where you are.

In fact, I'd be perfectly happy if the whole thing -- a giant database where all the guns are -- were available to EVERYBODY at all times, over the internet, on their iphones etc.  The one exception I'd make is that if you've got a gun at home, the database would NOT report on its location, even if it knew it.  It only becomes visible when you take it out.  That should actually comfort gun owners, because it helps level the playing field -- i.e. they can look on the internet and see if people with guns are coming near their house, but those people won't know which houses have guns in them.  That way, everyone can have an alarm any time a gun is nearby.  And of course, the police have the info too, and can both prevent and solve crimes with it.

I'd propose that the GPS or RFID chip be buried so deep in the gun that it's impossible to take out without serious work.  Perhaps it's even possible to do it so the gun won't fire without the chip, or such that taking the chip out would cause great problems for the gun itself.  And of course, the penalty for having a chip-free gun would be very steep.

We'd have to backfit all existing guns, and perhaps those backfitted devices would be easier to remove. But again, there would be steep penalties for doing so and for having such a gun, no matter how "innocent" you think you are.

It looks like the bill the blog was complaining about died soon thereafter, in 2011 (links below).  So not even a study can get through the liberal Massachusetts state legislature.  What hope is there for federal legislation?  That's up to you (see below).

I see a Yahoo open forum questioner had a similar idea in the wake of the shooting yesterday.  This person suggests having guns lock up near schools, malls, and government offices, and also mentions that they already have guns that will only operate after checking the user's fingerprint.  I didn't know about the fingerprint option; that could help in some cases -- including this one, where the kid got the guns from out of his mother's gun collection (at least according to early reports).

Anyway, now would be the chance to get Congress to take seriously at least the idea of "studying" a technological solution to gun control.  Why not let them?  They spend so much time and money studying other stuff, why not let them study something that might actually lead to lives being saved?

And here's one last idea:  have the study include a chance for public input in the end.  In other words, present findings plus options to the public after it's over.  And then have a means for the public to "vote" on which option they like best.  The public's vote obviously wouldn't count for anything -- this is a representative democracy after all -- but, if "votes" like this were to become a regular feature of our democracy, it would help the public see just how out of step its politicians have become, and might become a force for causing politicians to become more accountable to their publics on issues that really matter.

OK, I've run out of time to study the issue, but there doesn't seem to be much on it on Google YET.

YOU can make the difference -- Write your Congressperson now, and make this a campaign issue!

Oh what the heck.  I'm going to spend 10 more minutes and write you a form letter to send to your Congressperson. You can find out who your representatives are by punching in your zip code here:

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/#listrep

And then you click on their names and you'll find something that says "contact me," and that should give you a method of emailing them.  I just went to Jim Moran's site, and it's that easy --

https://moran.house.gov/contact-me/email-me

(I spelled out those links so you can tell they are legitimate, and can click them without fear)

Here's a form letter for you to use -- feel free to modify and personalize:

Dear Rep./Sen. _____:

I was devastated by the attack on schoolchildren that occurred in Connecticut on December 14, 2012.  I cannot help but wonder if the attack could have been prevented through a combination of legislation and technology.  I see that last year, State Senator Anthony Petruccelli introduced a bill in Massachusetts (S. 1224) to study the idea of putting GPS locators on firearms.  That idea sounds very good to me, but the bill seems to have died in Massachusetts.  It's time for serious, national attention to this issue.

So I am asking you to propose -- or support proposals -- that Congress seriously study the idea of using modern technology to track the locations of guns and to otherwise help prevent these eminently preventable massacres.  GPS trackers might not be the right answer at this point in time -- they might not be technologically feasible, because of power requirements.  The study should also consider the costs and benefits of putting RFIDs into guns, so that gun locations can be tracked by external readers.    It should also study the pros and cons of keying guns to the registered owner's fingerprint, so that only the legal owner can operate the weapon.  Of course, the study should not be limited to these ideas.

I have no problem with people having guns in their homes for self-defense, and I have no problem with people using guns for hunting or target practice in designated areas.  But if we have the technology to prevent people from carrying out murderous attacks on innocent children, I think we need to study it in a very public way, and figure out what will work and what won't.  After the study is reported, then let the people decide.  Yesterday, a lot of parents started thinking about gun control in ways they never had before.  And parents are voters.

Perhaps there is a solution that helps safeguard the "privacy rights" of gun owners, while also protecting our children.  If we don't do the study, we'll never know, and more innocent lives will be lost.

If you do not support legislation for studying the idea of using technology to track firearm locations, I will have a very hard time voting for you next time around.

Sincerely,


___________
(name)

___________
(zip code)



You can also send or email the same letter to the President as follows (lifted from http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/write-or-call#write):


Write a letter to the President

Here are a few simple things you can do to make sure your message gets to the White House as quickly as possible.
1. If possible, email us! This is the fastest way to get your message to President Obama.

2. If you write a letter, please consider typing it on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper. If you hand-write your letter, please consider using pen and writing as neatly as possible.

3. Please include your return address on your letter as well as your envelope. If you have an email address, please consider including that as well.

4. And finally, be sure to include the full address of the White House to make sure your message gets to us as quickly and directly as possible:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Finally, feel free to start a White House petition ("We the People") on this issue:





Friday, November 30, 2012

Extroverts Often Just Plain Rude

Just noticed that the film "Quiet - The Power of Introverts, Episode I" -- inspired by Susan Cain's book "Quiet - The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" -- was put up on youtube 3 days ago and has accumulated over 300,000 hits.  And it's narrated by a computer-generated voice.

Did a quick Google search and didn't find any obvious links from popular sites, so it's likely that it spread that quickly just through social networking.  Pretty impressive.

This is just Episode I, but it seems to make the main points from Susan Cain's book, which I read and liked some time ago.  The main point is that the modern world favors and rewards extroverts and often dismisses introverts as "shy" and "boring," whereas introverts are often simply "better" than extroverts.

I remember having only two beefs with the book -- one was her gushing (well, it was gushing for a self-declared introvert, anyway) description of Tony Robbins, but I suppose reasonable minds can differ on that.

The other was her failure to even mention the one thing that I find most frustrating about being an introvert in an extroverted world:

Whenever I am in a meeting with more than about 5 people, I find it almost impossible to get a word in edgewise.  And the reason is simply this -- extroverts (and, presumably, all of those introverts pretending to be extroverts) simply don't wait for a speaker to finish talking before starting to speak themselves.  Sometimes it's a blatant interruption, but more often it's a matter of jumping in at the precise moment that the speaker is winding down and it's clear that they've made their point.

This might not be so bad if the jumper-in always stayed on the same topic that the speaker had addressed.  If that were the case, then all the extroverts could talk themselves out on the topic, and then, when they are done, the introverts could jump into the pause and add in whatever the extroverts overlooked.  But what often happens is that the first or second extrovert responds to the original topic, and then uses the "floor" to change the topic to something else.  This necessarily leaves all of the introverts in the room in the dust -- it is often simply too late to revisit the earlier topic, because the meeting has moved on.

And it's not always just a random jumper-in who changes the topic.  Often it's the person who is nominally in charge of running the meeting him or herself.  That person often ends up thinking that the meeting is being held for their benefit, and they often think that they know when one topic is "played out" and it's time to move on to the next one.

In such cases, I usually end up having to make a decision -- was the extra thing that I had to say so important that I need to bring it up specially at the end of the meeting?  Do I need to circulate it in writing?  Or do I just let it go?  Either way, I end up looking somewhat inept.  Often the point is a good one, but it's not necessarily worthy of bringing up later in the meeting or in writing.  And the bottom line is I've gone through another meeting, looking like I've had nothing to contribute.

Any book that one reads about communications and running meetings etc. makes it clear that this "extroverted" behavior is not just counterproductive, but it's also just plain rude.  Those of us who've read those books and actually allow other people to finish their sentences end up seeming like dummies, compared with the people who got in there and really "contributed" to the meeting.

Here's what's most annoying of all.  Often, I will see a critical point at a very early stage in the meeting.  I will try to express it -- even to the point of starting to speak as someone else is winding down -- but I get beaten to the "interruption" punch by another extrovert.  And then some extrovert starts talking -- usually without thinking, usually just to hear him or herself talk -- and then, after rambling this way and that, stumbles on my idea!  That's the most frustrating of all.  The extrovert who stumbled on the idea by subjecting the rest of us to his "thinking out loud" then gets credit for the idea, even though I had it first, and my politeness -- my observance of the rules of engagement for proper meetings and conversation -- prevented me from articulating it and getting the credit (and saving the meeting a lot of time).

My solution would be as follows:

People in meetings should not only be able to talk, but they should also be able to type their thoughts out on their tablet (or whatever) and project those thoughts on a screen -- or just the wall -- as they occur to them.  That way, every voice would get heard, and everyone would get the credit due to them.

Technologically speaking, we are already there.  One could simply use virtual meeting software - i.e. a chat room type thing -- and project it on one screen at one place in the room.   Or, since everyone would be "in" the chat room already, projection might not even be necessary -- everyone would see the point on their laptop or tablet.  This would almost certainly make meetings more productive, and it would go a long way to leveling the playing field between introverts and extroverts.

If nothing else, an introvert could tell the meeting chair that he's got something else to contribute on a particular topic, so the meeting chair would not be tempted to move the topic on himself.

And since meetings like this are often the way that senior managers evaluate their subordinates, it will result in introverts getting more of the recognition that they deserve.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Another Straw Man Argument About Sex and Power


From "The Chemistry of the Suppression of Desire: What is going on in the brain of a cheater?" by Brian Alexander and Larry Young in yesterday's Slate:

"As always happens when a powerful married man is revealed to have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, finding Freudian uses for cigars, or supporting his maid’s child, there’s been a lot of speculation about the psychology of honcho guys. What is it about the powerful?

"This noodling is off-base on several counts. First, it neglects the fact that roughly one-quarter of married people—approximately equal numbers of men and women—report having had an extramarital affair. They aren’t all powerful. It’s true that the successful may indeed be more likely to commit adultery, but not for the reasons usually cited, such as their supposed sense of entitlement."

And now the Petraeus affair spawns yet another straw man.  As already discussed ad nauseam in previous posts, too many people (especially in the Washington Post) have gone off on their usual rant of "it's just sex, why fire him?"  Again, this was much more than that.

And now these guys -- who have written a book on sex and science -- are telling us that the Petraeus situation is causing everyone to wonder what it is about powerful men that makes them have sex.  As far as I can tell, that's not what people are speculating and noodling about.  If you noodle about it for about 10 seconds, you'll quickly realize that there is no single explanation of why powerful men sometimes have sex outside of marriage.

In Petraeus's case, it wasn't about a sense of entitlement -- it was an attractive, fawning, star-struck, much-younger woman who was almost certainly throwing herself at him.  The natural inclination of all but the most happily married 60-year-old men would be to succumb to that temptation.  And for the Petraeuses of the world, that opportunity only comes around so often.  I'm sorry, although Petraeus is a great general, and he has risen to the rank of alpha male, he really does not have that alpha male look or bearing.  Women have not been throwing themselves at him.

Now Clinton was different.  He might well have had that sense of entitlement (if what Paula Jones and various Arkansas State Troopers said was true, then he almost certainly did), and he seemed to have a kind of compulsion to have sex with as many different women-not-his-wife as possible.

It's just plain silly to compare Clinton and Petraeus sexually, and as far as I can tell, nobody but these guys is doing it.

I don't have enough information about either Arnold or Mark Sanford to even try to speculate on why they strayed, so I'm not going to.

The rest of the article talks about how oxytocin (the "cuddle hormone") helps men stay faithful to their comfortable wives, long after the initial sexual attraction has subsided.

And then they get to their point, which is that there is a gene that seems to correlate with both ambition (and therefore success) and infidelity:

"A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it’s also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious—people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers."

So it's not a sense of entitlement (as above, with Petraeus it never was), but it's a gene.  Science explains everything!

By the time they get to the conclusion, they don't have much to say:

"We’re not automatons. We are responsible for our actions. But our baked-in biases can make us susceptible to infidelity. Our brains can be a battlefield of competing interests, and sometimes desire wins. It may win more often in people like Petraeus whose bold, creative thinking we so admire can come with a bias toward behavior we don’t. That doesn’t make him special, it makes him human."

Here, they are meandering a bit, but I think they are kidding themselves into thinking that they've taught us some science here.  I think the "baked-in biases" they are talking about is the 7R+ gene described above that some of us have.  But if they think THAT's the reason that Petraeus strayed, they are barking up the wrong tree.  First, although he was certainly ambitious, the rest of the traits don't add up.  And second, as I've already explained, just about ANYONE in his circumstances would have succumbed.  The temptation was just too great.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

GSK's Misleading Avandia Study As Symptom of Bigger Problems of For-Profit Pharmaceutical Industry


The WashingtonPost today has an excellent article ("As drug industry’s influence over research grows, so does the potential for bias") on the basic problem of Pharma-funded research, which echoes some of what Dan Ariely says in "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty" (although my earlier posts on that book might have seemed critical, I am going to get through it, and it is a worthwhile read in many respects) about how it is very difficult for researchers with a financial stake in an outcome to do impartial research.

The article describes the fate of Glaxo-SmitkKline's Avandia, an anti-diabetes drug that was the clear victor in comparative trials described in a 17-page New England Journal of Medicine article in 2006.  Problem was, all eleven authors of the article received funding from GSK, and they all missed the fact that taking Avandia correlates to an increased risk of heart attack.  Because of that side effect, Avandia is now off the market.

[Aside -- This is one more example of how the modern Republican "free-market-uber-alles" mentality simply won't do.  The "free market" means that "capitalists" can purchase literally whatever they want -- including positive reviews of their drug products by respected scientists in a respected medical journal.  And although theoretically the fact that they might be liable for the harm caused if the "research" turns out to be wrong (or to miss something), that theoretical possibility counts very little against the immediate profits that can be realized by going forward with promoting and selling a blockbuster drug].

Here's an important quote from the article:

"The billions that the drug companies invest in such experiments help fund the world’s quest for cures. But their aim is not just public health. That money is also part of a high-risk quest for profits, and over the past decade corporate interference has repeatedly muddled the nation’s drug science, sometimes with potentially lethal consequences."

The article also notes:

"Years ago, the government funded a larger share of such experiments. But since about the mid-1980s, research funding by pharmaceutical firms has exceeded what the National Institutes of Health spends. Last year, the industry spent $39 billion on research in the United States while NIH spent $31 billion."

I'm quoting that because it's a shame that the article doesn't give exact statistics.  It's pretty weak to just say the government funded "a larger share" "years ago."  Based on the succeeding sentence, I assume it means that the government used to fund more research than Pharma, but there is a lot of data missing.

What saddens me is that this sort of "point" was not made in any significant way during the debate about Obamacare.  Instead, the legislation passed in part because the pharmaceutical companies were assured that they would be able to continue to do business as usual.   In fact, the more people get access to healthcare, the more Pharma will profit.

The last part of the Washington Post article is actually kind of sickening.

Apparently, GSK knew that Avandia caused increased levels of bad cholesterol and coronary blockage and yet suppressed that information.  The trial that was reported in the article -- ADOPT -- was done in response to a request by the FDA that GSK study potential heart problems with Avandia.  And yet the authors of the study (who, as above, already were financially-biased to begin with) were not told that this was an aim of the study (actually, the non-GSK authors and GSK disagree on this factual point), and were not told of about the information that GSK itself was actively suppressing on the subject.  The result was that ADOPT wasn't designed to detect cardiac issues; it was just a comparison between the benefits of Avandia and those of two older anti-diabetes drugs.

But on a close examination conducted by Steven E. Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, the data from ADOPT did show an apparent increase in cardiac risk, which was missed by the study's authors as well as the peer reviewers.  Nissen had seen potentially troubling results in an earlier study (called DREAM), but the sample size was too small to say anything definitive.  When he saw the same trends (increased cardiac events as well as increased levels of bad cholesterol) in the ADOPT study, he asked GSK for data from other studies relating to Avandia, and GSK refused.  Luckily much of that data was publicly available as a result of an investigation by Eliot Spitzer.

[Aside: As to GSK's refusal to release its data to Nissen, in principle, I could agree that the data is "proprietary" -- GSK paid for it, so it should be able to control it.  But that's just one more problem with having all the pharmaceutical research "privately funded."  If all the research were publicly funded, then the data would be free for everyone to look at, and everyone could study it and make independent evaluations of the risk.  And in effect, the data IS publicly funded, because it's bought and paid for by the patent system -- i.e. by the fact that we pay dollars for drugs that cost drug companies pennies to make.  Pharma keeps reminding us that the reason patented drugs costs so much is that they have to do all the expensive research.  That argument in effect concedes that the public is "paying" for the research.  The result should be that the public owns it.]

Nissen published his results in the New England Journal of Medicine. As part of the peer review process, Professor Stephen Haffner, a "Glaxo ally," received a confidential copy.  In an apparent breach of confidentiality, Haffner promptly faxed a copy to GSK, which then prepared a full-bore rebuttal, including a prematurely-released counter-study (called RECORD) designed to muddy the waters.  GSK's rebuttal did not withstand scrutiny, and Nissen was ultimately vindicated as more data came in.

And of course, despite its rebuttal, GSK knew all along that Nissen was on the right track.  From the article:

"More than 40 company executives would learn of [Nissen's article's] contents [as a result of Haffner's breach]. They prepared a meticulous response to its publication that suggested that Nissen’s results were plain wrong.

“'GSK strongly disagrees with the conclusions reached in the NEJM article, which are based on incomplete evidence and a methodology that the author admits has significant limitations,' the news release said.

"But internally, scientists and statisticians at Glaxo largely agreed with Nissen’s calculations, the company e-mails released by the Senate show.

"'To a great extent the numbers are the numbers, the Cleveland analysis is very similar to our own,' one of them reported via e-mail."

There are a rash of points beyond just the skewed-for-profit-research to be made for nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry.  I'll list them here briefly but will flesh them out (and more) in a subsequent post:

1.  The fact that drugs cost pennies to make, but millions if not billions to research.   The assumption is that the patent system is the only way to ensure that the research will be done.  But the patent system is very anti-free market -- it results in lengthy monopolies and suppression of competition legally for the term of the patent, and leads to all kinds of questionable practices designed to perpetuate the patent monopoly:

a.  Evergreening of patents

b.  Reverse settlements with generics in Hatch-Waxman litigation

c.  Special legislation to extend the life of lucrative patents

2.  Use of attractive Pharma Reps and other enticements to influence doctors to peddle specific drugs.

3.  Use of misleading (but "free speech") advertising to influence consumers.

4.  Steering consumers and doctors to patented drugs as opposed to off-patent versions.

5.  Inefficient and and suboptimal use of research dollars -- while competition is generally good, our pool of "research dollars" -- i.e. the premium the healthcare consumers and taxpayers (think Medicare and Medicaid) pay for research -- is very inefficiently spent, since it it divided among a number of pharmaceutical companies that are sometimes pursuing the same goals (and could thus benefit from knowledge of each others' research) and which are also pursuing the goals that are likely to be the most lucrative for them, as opposed to those that are in the best interests of public health.

And yes, nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry would not be easy, and it is difficult to predict that it will even achieve the best results.  After all, government is notoriously bad at running things.  The whole idea behind the patent system (and ancillary provisions like the Bayh-Dole Act) is that the government is not going to be good at getting needed innovations out to the public.

But I have to think that it can be done.  This is not about producing widgets, it's about saving lives.  A nationalized pharmaceutical industry might well attract the very people we want -- dedicated researchers whose life goals are to fight diseases and ease the suffering of mankind, and who have the tools and talents to make real progress on those fronts.  Right now, those people (the ones that don't work at the NIH) are working in the pharmaceutical industry, and getting mixed up in debacles like Avandia and Vioxx.  Wouldn't it simply be better to get rid of the distortions caused by the profit motive, and let them focus on getting the best medicines to the people?



Thursday, November 22, 2012

Latest Relevations Prove Me Right on Petraeus Firing

Actually, it's still too soon to prove me "right".  All I've said so far is that the firing was almost certainly about more than just the sex.  Sometime yesterday (I think after my post on the subject, or else I just missed it), the Washington Post ran a piece trying to explain how Paula Broadwell came to have classified material in her possession and on her computer.  Here's the meat of it:

"Petraeus aides and other high-ranking military officials were often tasked by Petraeus and other top commanders to provide military records and other documents to Paula Broadwell for her work as Petraeus’s biographer, former staff members and other officials told The Washington Post.

"Broadwell, a married Army reservist, frequently visited Petraeus in Afghanistan when he was in charge of the war there. She repeatedly sought records that she said Petraeus wanted her to have, according to the former staff members and officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing."

So it sounds like the aides are saying both that (1) Petraeus told them to give her classified material, and (2) that sometimes they gave it to her based on her assertion that Petraeus had told them to turn it over.

I'm not going to go on too much farther here because even after all of this I have a great amount of respect for General Petraeus.  But it does sound like he might have in the end fallen victim to the sense that he was above it all.  The Washington Post's article about the lavish lifestyles that generals enjoy gives one a sense of how this might have happened -- they are treated like gods within the military, and after a while, they might actually start to think that they deserve it.

[Aside:  There's a similar sense of entitlement among the very rich.  They are treated like gods (because everyone wants a piece of their money), and they start to believe they deserve their vast wealth and they bridle at paying any taxes on it at all.  As I've explained before (see http://pricefixer.blogspot.com/2011/11/do-top-1-deserve-it.html), very few of the very rich actually deserve all of their wealth.  They have almost all benefited from the practice of "skimming" -- the ability to skim off relatively small fractions of the giant torrents of money that flow around the corporate world -- and there is no correlation between how much they are able to skim (which, although a mere fraction of the torrent, can be many millions or billions of dollars) and how much effort they put into "earning" it (much less how much societal good their particular method of "earning" money created).

It's not good for society when this sense of entitlement becomes entrenched -- society becomes an aristocracy, and fantasies about class warfare begin to simmer among those who have been left out.  End Aside.]

So here, apparently General Petraeus was assuming that the rules that govern access to classified material did not apply to him, or could be waived by him at will.  It's not an unreasonable position to take -- much of what is classified as "secret" just isn't all that "secret," or isn't all that important, and one would think that someone with such vast powers as Petraeus ought to be able to exercise some judgment as to whether a given situation might call for an exception to the rule. Still, the military can't function without rules and strict adherence to them, and those at the top need to model respect for those rules.  And since we're in the realm of situational ethics, I can't help pointing out that giving limited access to low-level classified information to a serious, detached biographer might be one thing, but giving it to your mistress or someone you are hoping to sleep with is quite another.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is the Yanked Republican Copyright Policy Brief Newsworthy?


The major news outlets and networks don't seem to think so.

If you do a google search (web and/or news) on for the Republican copyright policy brief, the closest thing to the mainstream media (i.e. something other than blogs, specialized news outlets (e.g. techdirt), and public interest groups) one finds is HuffingtonPost.  Nothing in the Washington Post, nothing in the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal.  Nothing MSNBC or CNN.  And nothing on Fox News.

The thing came out on November 16, and none of these news outlets featured so much as an op-ed, as far as I can tell.

Is that because they ALL have vested interests in the continued expansion of the copyright system?

Why can't just won of those columnists who are so busy obsessing about how everyone else is obsessing about Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley take a moment and contemplate the importance of this event?

Why are they staking out Paula and Jill's houses, when they could be interviewing Jim Jordan, Paul Teller, or Derek S. Khanna?

Why is this more important than Paula's wardrobe, or Natalie's Gloria Allred press conference?

Because it's unprecedented, that's why.  It's the sort of thing that gives a disillusioned public that perhaps there is some hope for our two party political process after all.  Until the moment of that release, no major political party, and no major political candidate had ever so starkly stood up to the Copyright Industries.  Yes, there have been a few congressmen here and there who have spoken up.  But where are they now?  (Rick Boucher is gone, I know that). Even hope-and-change Barack Obama had a copyright agenda that could have been written by those industries, and he certainly hasn't done anything to curb them.

For me, Copyright legislation is the ultimate f-you to the people from both the political parties, and it serves as proof positive that both parties don't give a darn about the public interest, when campaign funds are at stake.  And the fact that they are so unconcerned with the public interest on copyright issues tells me that that's the way they feel about every other issue that comes their way as well.  On other issues, however, there are often lobbyists on both sides, and each side can make a case that its position was for the public interest.

The most obvious and easiest-to-explain example was the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.  Simply because a few very valuable copyrights were going to expire -- including copyrights on all the early Disney movies -- Congress passed a law that extended ALL existing copyrights by 20 years.  Millions of works that would have fallen into the public domain and thus been available for free to the public -- for entertainment, research, or just information -- remain locked up due to the willingness of the 1998 Congress to put the corporate self-interest of Disney (and a few rich heirs who happened to own other important copyrights) over the interest of all Americans.

For 24 hours, the Republican Party took the position that this sort of thing is simply wrong, and that copyright is no longer serving its intended purpose, and in fact is becoming a tool of oppression.  There's a big story behind what led up to the memo, and there's a big story behind what caused it to be pulled back.

But the mainstream media apparently has other things on its mind.

I reproduced the Policy Brief in my last post, but I'm going to reproduce it again here.  It deserves to be reproduced over and over again.


Republicans Get Copyright Right -- for 24 Hours

It turns out there are some good Republicans out there.  Some of them had the courage to stand up to one of Congress's biggest and most lavish sponsors:  The Copyright Industry.

I wouldn't say that the Copyright Industry "owns" both parties, but it owns as big a piece of each party as any industry out there.  And since its interests don't usually conflict with those of Congress's other owners, it usually gets its way on its legislative initiatives.  The result has been a ratchet-like increase in the rights of copyright owners over the last 200 years, with an exponential expansion occurring over the last 20 years. All at the expense of the public.

Of course, this Republican act of defiance -- a Policy Brief -- was extremely short-lived.  Cooler and more campaign-donation-minded heads prevailed, and the memo was yanked.

I don't know how many voters out there are "single-issue-copyright" voters, but if this had been part of the Republican platform, I might seriously have considered voting Republican the last time around.  It would be the first example in a long time of a political party taking the side of the public's interest against one of its major sponsors.

Here is a link to the memo.  But just in case that goes away, I'm reproducing the entire memo below:


RSC Staff Contact: Derek S. Khanna, Derek.Khanna@mail.house.gov, (202) 226-0718

This paper will analyze current US Copyright Law by examining three myths on 
copyright law and possible reforms to copyright law that will lead to more economic 
development for the private sector and to a copyright law that is more firmly based upon 
constitutional principles.

1. The purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of the content:

It’s a common misperception that the Constitution enables our current legal regime of 
copyright protection – in fact, it does not. The Constitution’s clause on Copyright and 
patents states:

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to 
Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;”
(Article I, Section 8, Clause 8)

Thus, according to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of the copyright system is to 
“promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In today’s terminology we may say 
that the purpose is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.
This is a major distinction, because most legislative discussions on this topic, particularly 
during the extension of the copyright term, are not premised upon what is in the public 
good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation, but rather what the 
content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. This lexicon is 
appropriate in the realm of taxation and sometimes in the realm of trade protection, but it 
is inappropriate in the realm of patents and copyrights. 

Strictly speaking, because of the constitutional basis of copyright and patent, legislative 
discussions on copyright/patent reform should be based upon what promotes the Page | 2
maximum “progress of sciences and useful arts” instead of “deserving” financial 
compensation.

2. Copyright is free market capitalism at work:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism.  Under the current 
system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government 
instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly. 

It is guaranteed because it is automatic upon publishing. 

It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that 
allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional 
tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to 
the copyright producer.  For example, Limewire was sued for $75 trillion, based upon 
Section 504(c)(1) of the Copyright Action enabling such large fines per violation. This 
potential award is more money than the entire music recording industry has made since 
Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, and thus in no way corresponds to the 
actual demonstrated “damages,” to the record industry. By Congress creating an arbitrary
statutory fine for damages the government has implemented its own system for 
dissuading copyright violation, above and beyond conventional tort law for a perceived 
“property” like right.

In addition, it is a government-subsidized monopoly in another sense.  Copyright 
violators can face jail time, and government agencies are tasked with investigating 
copyright violations and stopping these activities. This may be a good decision or a bad 
decision, but, it is a form of the government subsidizing the costs of recovering assets 
that may or may not be considered to have been “stolen.” There are other industries 
where the government has also chosen to subsidize in a similar manner, but the point here 
is that this is not a strictly laissez faire capitalistic institution.

3. The current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and 
productivity:

There is surely an argument in favor of copyright, and it is the argument that our 
Founding Fathers were familiar with. While the size and scope of current copyright 
violations are vastly disproportionate to anything in previous history, in the 18th century our Founding Fathers were familiar with copyright violation. In fact Great Britain was 
quite angry at what was perceived to be rampant theft in the colonies of their intellectual 
property in the form of literature.

With this in mind, our Founding Fathers wrote the clause in the Constitution on 
protecting content. But they knew that there was a very serious cost for this governmentinstituted monopoly. It is a balancing test to ensure that we have the maximum amount of productivity overall. 

With no copyright protection, it was perceived that there would be insufficient incentive 
for content producers to create new content – without the ability to compensate them for 
their work. And with too much copyright protection, as in copyright protection that 
carried on longer than necessary for the incentive, it will greatly stifle innovation.  In 
addition, excessive copyright protection leads to what economists call “rent-seeking” 
which is effectively non-productive behavior that sucks economic productivity and 
potential from the overall economy.  

This Goldilocks-like predicament – not too little and not too much – was what our 
Founding Fathers had in mind with the phrase “securing for limited Times.” 

Current status of Copyright Law?:

Under the Copyright Act of 1790, the first federal copyright act, it stated that the purpose 
of the act was the “encouragement of learning” and that it achieved this by securing 
authors the “sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending” their 
works for a term of 14 years, with the right to renew for one additional 14 year term 
should the copyright holder still be alive. This is likely what our Founding Fathers meant 
when they wrote in the Constitution for a “limited time.” Gradually this period began to 
expand, but today’s copyright law bears almost no resemblance to the constitutional 
provision that enabled it and the conception of this right by our Founding Fathers. 

 Original Copyright Law: 14 years, plus 14 year renewal if author is alive.

 Current Copyright Law: Life of author plus 70 years; and for corporate authors 

120 years after creation or 95 years after publication.

Critics of current law point out that the terms of copyright continue to be extended 
perpetually, ensuring that works never actually enter the public domain – particularly 
Walt Disney’s production of Steamboat Willey, the first Mickey Mouse film. If this is 
true, if copyright is to be indefinitely extended, then that would effectively nullify Article 
I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution which provides protection only for “limited 
times.”

Can we ever have too much copyright protection?:

Yes. The Federal government has gotten way too big, and our copyright law is a 
symptom of the expansion in the size and scope of the federal government.
Today’s legal regime of copyright law is seen by many as a form of corporate welfare 
that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer. It is a system that picks winners and losers, 
and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value.  We 
frankly may have no idea how it actually hurts innovation, because we don’t know what 
isn’t able to be produced as a result of our current system. But we do know that our 
copyright paradigm has:

A. Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry:

Many other countries have a robust culture of DJ’s and remixing, but the United 
States, quite perplexingly as the creator of a large portion of the world’s content, is 
far behind. DJ/remix culture is a democratizing system where self-starters can 
compete based upon merit. In other countries, every 16-year-old with a computer and 
“Virtual DJ” software can remix various songs and compete based upon talent. As a 
result there are thriving DJ/remix markets in Turkey and other countries. These DJ’s 
put their content online or sell mix-tapes (no longer tapes) and there is a meritocratic
system that continues to innovate. 

However, in the United States this culture is heavily retarded.

DJ’s in the United States are mainly live performers, as there are heavy restrictions on 
what they are allowed to release and sell as mix-tapes. There are convoluted rules are 
on what parts of songs that they can sample, often requiring input from lawyers to 
avoid massive fines or lawsuits. As a result, in the United States there are great live 
performer DJ’s, but selling most “real” mix-tapes by small level DJ’s is illegal and 
disincentivized. This stifles most forms of mash-ups or selling of remixed songs by 
independent artists.  

This does not completely eliminate the remix market. While the producing artists 
themselves can remix their own songs, and major DJ’s or other artists can remix other 
people’s songs and pay high level royalties in the $100,000’s-per-song range.
However, this prohibitively high price range stifles most average DJ’s from legally 
releasing their own mash-up or remixed songs. While there is an underground remix 
black market, this market is nothing like it would be if this were legalized.
Since these prospective new remixes would not replace the original songs, but merely 
supplement them and perhaps even increase sales of the original songs, overall 
productivity is greatly hampered by making production of these materials effectively 
illegal.

B. Hampering scientific inquiry:

Scientific papers from the early portion of the 20th
century are still under copyright. . . 

This is illogical, as the purpose of most scientific papers is to further intellectual 
inquiry, and the goal of most authors of scientific papers is to advance their field and 
to be cited in other publications. Many professors are assessed upon the number of 
citations for their major works. For these reasons, keeping their work in what are 
effectively locked vaults defeats the purpose of much of their work. 

Obviously these producers need to be compensated to justify the cost of their 
research, but after around 14 years, most, if not nearly all, of the earning capacity of 
their work has been exhausted, and at that point the overriding interest is in ensuring 
that these works are available for others. While there are exceptions in the law for the 
use of this material for good faith exceptions, there are numerous examples where 
for-profit entities want to use published journal articles but are unable to do so 
without negotiating a payment to the producer of the content.

If however, these older papers were available online for free on Google Scholar to 
anyone to access and use after a reasonable period of time then it would greatly 
increase the availability and utilization of scientific analysis.

C. Stifling the creation of a public library:

Many of our country’s smartest and most successful people were autodidacts who 
taught themselves far beyond that of conventional studies through intellectual inquiry 
of their own and a voracious appetite for reading. Benjamin Franklin conceived the 
idea of a subscription library because libraries allow for information to be 
democratized to the masses. Today the sheer amount of information available to the 
average person is several orders of magnitude beyond that available in 1990, let alone 
in 1790. But still today an enormous amount of intellectual knowledge in locked 
behind physical books, rather than accessible on the general internet.
Project Gutenberg is trying to change that by becoming an online repository for a 
readable/downloadable version of every book available without copyright. Project 
Gutenberg’s full potential will be to provide the greatest amount of intellectual 
knowledge ever assembled in the history of the world to any person with the click of 
a button. 

But this potential of knowledge drops off around 1923 when materials are not in the 
public domain. Imagine the potential for greater learning as a result of obtaining 
books from the 1920-1980 periods. Assigned books in high school classes could be 
all downloaded to a student’s Kindle, rather than bought in a book store. The Page | 6
threshold cost for learning will virtually vanish, and with that, the potential for greater 
learning would skyrocket.  

From a technological perspective, the data size of books is very small - for example, 
every book in the Kindle store could fit on one of the largest available consumer hard 
drives – thus in a few years it may be technologically possible to have every book 
ever written on our computer or IPAD at the click of a button (though not necessarily 
worthwhile because it’s easier to just access the books you need when you need them 
online).

D. Discouraging added-value industries:

While the current paradigm may work great for content producers, it doesn’t work 
great for the creation of other industries. There is enormous potential for other addedvalue industries on top of existing media. For example, in a world where movies, 
television shows and books that were 30+ years old were available in the public
domain, you would likely see new industries crop up to offer a new experience on top 
of this media.

A. Reading a book with pop-up text on extra information on given topics.

B. Watching a movie with “VH1 Pop-up video” add-ons to provide trivia and 
relevant information. There would be thousands of fan generated content 
analyzing Star Wars by providing commentary and analysis.

E. Penalizes legitimate journalism and oversight:

This effect is perhaps the most extreme effect of our current copyright law and the 
most unacceptable.  Current copyright law allows for producers of written materials, 
such as memos or other documents, to claim copyright when they are seeking to hide 
incriminating information. While these materials can be produced in court, producing 
this information in the media or through an oversight organization is often illegal.
Imagine if there were a memo published by a well-known DC think-tank during 
World War 2 and this memo was on the topic of endorsing Nazism and Adolph 
Hitler. Likely if it were published in the 1940’s, few memos would still be around, 
and it would likely fade into history never to be remembered. But if an enterprising 
reporter or political organization were to find a copy of these memos they would still 
likely be protected by copyright. If that reporter or political organization put the 
memo on their website as proof of the think-tank endorsing Nazism and Hitler, then 
they are liable for significant damages for copyright violation. The think-tank is likely 
to sue them or threaten to do so to avoid the memo going public in the first place.Page | 7
This is a disgusting use of copyright, yet there are numerous examples of copyright 
being used in this manner – in order to stifle oversight and hide incriminating 
information. This is not the purpose of copyright, and our democracy functions best 
when the fourth estate is able to provide this type of information to the public. 

Potential Policy Solutions:

1. Statutory Damages Reform:

Copyright infringement has statutory damages, which most copyright holders can and do 
use in litigation (rather than having to prove actual damages).  The government sets a 
range – which is $750 to $30,000 per infringement – but that goes up to $150,000 if the 
infringement is "willful." Evidence suggests that the content holder almost always claims 
that it is willful.  This fine is per infringement.  Those rates might have made sense in 
commercial settings (though even then they arguably seemed high), but in a world where 
everyone copies stuff at home all the time, the idea that your iPod could make you liable 
for a billion dollars in damages is excessive.

Further, this system creates a serious clogging of the courts, because copyright holders 
now recognize that they can accuse anyone of infringement, and include the threat of 
$150,000 awards per violation. But in reality, most people then settle for less than that 
sum, say $3,000. Scaring a large number of potentially innocent people into settling 
should not be an effect of copyright law.

Copyright awards were meant to make the copyright holder whole – they were not 
supposed to be punitive.  Reforming this process is an important element of federal tort 
reform, which unlike other forms of tort reform is clearly within the federal prerogative. 

2. Expand Fair Use:

Right now, it's somewhat arbitrary as to what is legally fair use based upon judicially 
created categories.  One example: parodies are considered protected by fair use but satire
is not. There's an excellent book (and a shorter paper) called Infringement Nation that 
details how things you do every single day are infringing and leave every single person 
liable for billions in damages each year 
(http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1029151).

3. Punish false copyright claims:

Because there is minimal or nearly non-existent punishment for bogus copyright claims 
today, false takedown requests are common and have a chilling effect upon legitimate 
speech. While those filing a takedown request have to swear on the threat of perjury, that
swearing is only in regard to whether the work is theirs but not whether the work is Page | 8
actually infringing. The court has said that their needs to be “subjective bad faith” in 
order to be sanctioned for false takedown requests. This often leads to de facto 
censorship.

4. Heavily limit the terms for copyright, and create disincentives for renewal:

Because of the reasons explained in this paper, the constitutional conception of copyright 
was for a limited period of time. For our Founders this was 14 years for copyright with a 
potential renewal for another 14 years if the author was alive. 
Current public policy should create a disincentive for companies to continue their 
copyright indefinitely because of the negative externalities explained in this paper. Unlike 
many forms of government revenue, generating revenue by disincentivizing activities 
with negative externalities is one way for the government to pay for its operations. This is 
a far superior way for the government to generate revenue rather than having a tax system 
that disincetivizes work.

Below is a suggestion for one such proposal:

A. Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all 
existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed 
today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

B. Elective-12 year renewal (cost 1% of all United States revenue from first 12 years 
– which equals all sales).

C. Elective-6 year renewal (cost 3% of revenue from the previous 12 years).

D.Elective-6 year renewal (cost 5% of revenue in previous 6 years).

E. Elective-10 year renewal (10% of ALL overall revenue – fees paid so far).
This proposal would terminate all copyright protection after 46 years. This is obviously a 
steep cliff, particularly from the extension of copyright from 36 to 46 years. But the point 
is to discourage indefinite copyright.

Conclusion: To be clear, there is a legitimate purpose to copyright (and for that matter patents). 
Copyright ensures that there is sufficient incentive for content producers to develop content, but 
there is a steep cost to our unusually long copyright period that Congress has now created. Our 
Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with explicit instructions on this matter for a limited 
copyright – not an indefinite monopoly. We must strike this careful Goldilocks-like balance for 
the consumer and other businesses versus the content producers. 

It is difficult to argue that the life of the author plus 70 years is an appropriate copyright term for 
this purpose – what possible new incentive was given to the content producer for content 
protection for a term of life plus 70 years vs. a term of life plus 50 years? Where we have reached a point of such diminishing returns we must be especially aware of the known and 
predictable impact upon the greater market that these policies have held, and we are left to 
wonder on the impact that we will never know until we restore a constitutional copyright system.
Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets – rather it destroys entire markets.


The Media Lashes Back In Support of Petraeus!

In addition to Richard Cohen and John Prados (see my previous posts here and here), Dana Milbank ("Petraeus’s affair was no ‘scandal’"), David Ignatius ("The Petraeus affair’s resulting witch hunt"), and Fred Hiatt ("A scandal we can’t love") have all weighed in on the side of "it was just sex, this is all overblown."  And that's just the Washington Post.

As always, when the weight of opinion starts to turn against me, I sit back and reevaluate.  Was I wrong to criticize Cohen and Prados for dismissing the affair as "just sex"?  Was I wrong to ridicule Prados for calling it a "witch-hunt" when Ignatius has now called it a "witch-hunt" in his title?

No.

All of these people are still missing the point.

We can all agree that it is a shame that the country has lost the services of such a capable leader as Petraeus, and might lose those of the equally-capable Allen.  We can also all agree that it is a shame that such impressive records of service are being tarnished. We're not just talking the kind of "public service" that Congresspeople pat themselves on the back for doing; we're talking military service -- the most honorable and most demanding kind of public service that any citizen can offer his or her country (well, it's demanding at least until you're in a position to order up an 28-cop motorcade to take you to a party).

So we can agree it's a shame.  These guys have done a lot for our country, and could do a lot more, and we need guys like that in those important positions.

We can also agree that at this point, the only truly "culpable" fact that we the public know about is the admitted sex between Broadwell and Petraeus.  And so far that's just been admitted to have occurred after Petraeus's military service.

We can even agree that if that is TRULY all that occurred, then all of these columnists are perfectly right -- Petraeus should not have been made to resign.

So the questions then become "who is speculating here?", and given that both sides are speculating, what should the "default" position be -- i.e. whose speculation is irresponsible?

I'm speculating because I say there is likely to be more there.  And the columnists are speculating because they assume that there is no more there.  But the difference is (1) that I admit that I am speculating (on the theory that where there is smoke there is fire), whereas (2) they assume that the "record" as we know it is all there is (if all we know about for sure is the smoke, then we shouldn't assume there is a fire).

In a way, it's a question about whose conduct we want to speculate about.  Are we going to speculate that Clapper -- also a highly respected military man -- would abruptly fire Petraeus on the basis of some post-service extramarital nooky?  Is that really fair to Clapper?  Or can we, based on inferences about Clapper's conduct (not to mention that of Petraeus in resigning, and Obama in accepting the resignation), speculate that perhaps the admitted adulterer Petraeus was somehow culpable for more than just the adultery?

My evidence is admittedly inferential.  I don't think Clapper would have told Petraeus to resign, or that Petraeus would have resigned, or that Obama would have accepted his resignation, if all that happened was that Petraeus happened to have post-military sex with his hot, adoring biographer.  If that's all that the FBI investigation had turned up, I think there's a strong chance that we the public wouldn't even have gotten the whiff of the scandal we did -- i.e. Petraeus would not have been asked to resign, would not have resigned, and there would be no story.

My evidence as to Allen is also inferential.  There are 20,000 pages of email that Allen has seen, but which I haven't seen.  All I know is that the word "sweetheart" is in them, and that they might be "potentially inappropriate."  And Allen hasn't resigned yet.

Given that my position allows for the possibility that if all there is is smoke, and no fire, then Petraeus and Allen should not have to suffer, and the country should not lose their services, my position is the more reasonable one.  In other words, I'm NOT saying Clapper was right to fire Petraeus.  I'm just saying we don't know that yet, and until we know it's silly to go around saying that he shouldn't have been fired just for the sex.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I-495 HOT Lanes Concession -- Corporate Control of traffic

I do not yet have a view on the new commuter lanes on I-495 (the DC Beltway), which opened yesterday (with 6 accidents occurring at the same spot, as commuters swerved to try to avoid getting trapped in a pay lane).  I rarely take that road during rush hour. 

But it's an interesting study on the whole "capitalism as cure for everything, including taxes" approach.  Apparently Virginia knew that it had to relieve the congestion on the beltway somehow, but it was politically impossible for it to do that by raising taxes.  So it turned to private industry. 

I'm sure there's an easy answer to the question of whether the contract was competitively bid, but it's interesting that it's not available on the VA HOT Lanes website anymore -- neither of the google search results below leads anywhere.


















All links just redirect to the cover page http://expresslanes.com/ and I couldn't figure out how to get where I wanted to go from there. Wikipedia is not much help on the question either.  Interestingly, most of the links on wikipedia likewise simply redirect to the uninformative http://expresslanes.com/ cover page.

But in the end, I found some references to the fact that Transurban-Fluor beat out Clark-Shirley for the "concession."

Transurban is an Australian corporation, per wikipedia.  Fluor is a Texas company.  I get the sense that Transurban is the mastermind (it does toll roads generally), while Fluor will actually do the construction and engineering work.  This suggests to me that the profits will ultimately go to Transurban, and that Transurban (the foreign part of the partnership) will be the one that decides whether and how much to increase the tolls.  All of this bears checking out, but right now it seems like a good guess (what I would do for more time!).

So the fact that our tolls for the next 80 years (that's the deal -- 80 years) are simply leaving the country, for the benefit of the Australian economy, is one of the downsides to the project.  This is going on all over the place -- the Pennsylania turnpike was leased (for the next 75 years) to a consortium including Citibank and Spain’s Abertis Infraestructuras.  And Chicago sold a 75-year parking concession to Morgan Stanley, which apparently sold a large (possibly controlling) interest off to the investment arm of Abu Dhabi.

But even apart from the foreign interest, I question whether we want corporations, as opposed to governments, in charge.
1.  I generally approve of the idea of providing a HOT lane like this, so that commuters in a hurry can "pay" for the ability to get where they are going faster.  There is also a provision that if you have three people in the car, you can take the lane for free.  This is all to the good, and the these lanes are used, the more that reduces congestion in the remaining lanes.  It's actually a decent example of a market solution to the congestion problem, and it's been made feasible by technology that takes your toll without requiring you to stop your car.

2.  I am deeply suspicious, however, of letting private companies set the rates.  Their motive, pure and simple, is to maximize profits.  They don't care about the public good.  And there will be times in the next 80 years when those interests come into conflict.  

3.  So ideally, the State of Virginia would have funded the thing with tax dollars, and then retained control over the concession, so that it could manage it in the public interest.  The money that came in from the tolls would have gone right back to the Virginia taxpayers. That's got to be the way a public good -- like infrastructure -- should work.  

4.  But since it was impossible to raise the taxes necessary to pay for it, perhaps private ownership was the only choice.  And perhaps what we've got is better than the alternative -- nothing.  Still, it's an 80 year commitment to allow someone else to decide -- and to profit from -- how much our commuters pay to get to work.  

5.  So the jury is still out for me.  But I am worried.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

John Prados Gets it Wrong in Washington Post Op-Ed


The article, titled "The outdated rules that forced Petraeus to resign" is here.

Mr. Prados seems to be some kind of a national security expert, so maybe I just don't understand, but I have to say that most of what he says doesn't make much sense.

Here are some of the highlights:

He says "The hysterical reaction to the news of then-CIA Director David Petraeus’s liaison with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has done more to harm national security than the affair itself."

He never gets around to explaining this, although the theme of his article is that a lot of well-qualified CIA agents have had to resign because of over-restrictive security policies, and that some of those agents may have turned rogue because of those policies (e.g. Ames and Agee both had foreign wives who had to be investigated under the CIA's policies).

First of all I don't think there is a "hysterical reaction" anywhere.  It's a very interesting situation and it's fun to think about and talk about, and we keep learning more good stuff every day.  Today I learned that Paula Broadwell didn't actually win the West Point fitness prize that she says she won, that Harvard asked her to leave because she wasn't getting her work done, and that Jill Kelley tried to use her connections to get an $80 million (or possibly $2 million; accounts differ) commission on $4 billion business deal involving South Korea, and that her connections (possibly including Petraeus and General Allen) had gotten her an appointment as "honorary consul" to South Korea.  But I don't see hysteria in the sense of "oh my god they had sex!!"  Literally NOBODY is saying that.  And yet that seems to be every columnist's favorite straw man -- people are over-reacting about sex, get over it.

No, we're not reacting to the sex.  There's so much more to this story than that.  Now, it might have been the sex that started it, but I seriously doubt that James Clapper advised Petraeus to resign just because of the sex.  What little we do know at this time is that the sex -- or at least the sex appeal, since Petraeus says the affair didn't start until after he left the military -- apparently gave Paula Broadwell all kinds of access that she simply should not have had.  And we now know that Paula is a little bit unbalanced.  Yes, all ambitious, self-promoting people are, and god knows there are a lot of them in the world.  But her email to General Allen was a bit crazy.  So were her emails to Jill Kelley.  She had classified material on her home computer.  She lied about that fitness award.  She took credit for "writing" the "All In" book, but really it was ghost written by Vernon Loeb -- Paula just sent in the field reports.  There are also allegations that Petraeus took Broadwell on a government-funded trip to Paris.

So perhaps the sex (or the sex appeal) caused other "lapses" of judgment by Petraeus.  Petraeus knows, Broadwell knows, Clapper knows, Obama probably knows, but the rest of us will have to sit and wait.  What we do know, but what Prados and the like don't seem to understand, is that Petraeus wasn't fired just because of the sex.

And that's just the Broadwell side of things.  Everything we are learning about Jill Kelley seems to scream out "inappropriate"!  Did the generals really have to go to those parties at her house?  In a 28-cop motorcade?  Is it really that easy for someone like Jill Kelley to get access to four star generals, just by throwing a few lavish parties on her maxed-out credit card? Did Petraeus really have time to become "friends" with the Kelleys?  Did Petraeus really  have to write that letter in the court case for the sister?  Did he help Jill Kelley in other ways?

I have a feeling that Paula's emails to Allen and Kelley were not entirely without basis.  She wasn't delusional.  For all we know, the whole Kelley vortex is just about to suck Petraeus in, along with General Allen.

Like Richard Cohen, Prados seems to assume that by thus penalizing Petraeus for having sex, we are throwing away Petraeus's irreplaceable talents for nothing.  He also seems to assume that we have enough information about what went on to know for a fact that Petraeus shouldn't have been fired.  But as I've explained above, we just don't know.

Eventually Prados gets to his real point, which is that certain CIA rules that have nothing to do with the current situation (and one of which has been repealed) are just too draconian.  In particular, he is talking about [1] the "CIA’s insistence on investigating foreigners engaged to agency employees and [2] its own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which intelligence officers found to be gay lost their clearances or even their jobs."  He admits up front that the latter policy was revoked  by Executive Order in 1998, but seems annoyed that it was the President, not the agency, that did the revoking.

The rest of the article is pure handwringing and speculation.  In short, he wonders how many talented people left the agency because they didn't want their foreign wives to have to be subjected to a security check, or because they were gay.  And as mentioned already, he finds it highly significant that a handful of spies (well, Ames and Agee, anyway) could be characterized as having been offended by the foreign-wife-security-check policy.

He also has a riff on how the people at the top of the CIA tend to get away with stuff that the lower ranks don't (even though this doesn't really fit with his theme that Petraeus should be allowed to stay).

Towards the end he says:

"The ostensible concern about the Petraeus affair was the potential for blackmail. Yet it is far-fetched today to think that a foreign government would contrive an operation to ensnare a CIA employee through an affair, a foreign-spy spouse or an allegation of homosexuality. Our enemies are unlikely to bother with such complicated schemes. Instead, they buy information — the method that has remained tried and true — or attempt to hack it from the data-rich computer networks that the government is spending billions to defend."

Like just about everything else in the piece, this too misses the point.  The blackmail concern is that if you are having an affair with ANYONE, anyone who finds out about it can blackmail you by threatening to tell (e.g.) your wife, or, if you're famous, the newspapers.  Given how protective Petraeus was of his reputation, that would have been a very serious threat indeed.  Who knows what he would have done if somebody had decided to try to blackmail him with information about his affair.  The CIA's rules (if there is a CIA rule against adultery; I'm not sure) -- which admittedly are unfair to adulterers who get caught -- are designed to prevent this.

To those talented CIA agents who want to commit adultery and still keep their jobs -- and I'm sure there are more than a few -- I have just one piece of advice:  Don't get caught!

Update 11/21/12:  It's not just Prados and Cohen that think along these lines -- at the Washington Post alone, it's also Milbank, Hiatt, and Ignatius.  My response is here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Romney's Parting Words

Surprise, surprise a lot of people voted for Obama because they thought Obama's policies would be good for them personally.  Doesn't everybody know that's how some voters behave?

Of course they do, and Romney used the same strategy.  That's why he was in Virginia promising to save the coal industry and to build more submarines, why he was in Ohio promising to build more tanks, and why he was promising to lower everybody's taxes.  So he was going after the coal vote, the military vote, the Ohio vote, the Virginia vote, and the taxpayer vote.

As for Romney's blaming his loss on Obama's successful get-out-the-vote effort, that just underscores one more of his own campaign's failures.  Yes, Obama's team did a masterful job of getting the people he had pandered to (as well as the people that Romney had alienated) to the polls.  That happens during every election, and every politician knows it (although I think Obama's "get-out-the-vote" effort this time around was more scientific and better-run than any in history).  But Romney had just as much or more money to devote to that purpose.  His team on that score was simply not as effective as Obama's.  Complaining about losing an election based on this factor is like blaming your loss in a basketball game on the fact that your opposition used better teamwork.  Complete lack of self-awareness.


In the traditional battle between the incumbent and the challenger -- each side has advantages and disadvantages.  Let's go back and consider them, and see if we can figure out what Romney should have done.


Incumbent Advantage:  Assuming the incumbent can get something past the opposition in Congress, he can actually follow through on some of his promises before the election.

Incumbent Disadvantage:  Can be blamed for whatever is bad that has happened in the last four years.

Challenger Advantage:  Can run as an outsider who will fix a broken Washington (as Obama did in 2008)

Challenger Disadvantage:  Can't actually pass legislation until he is in office.

Challenger Advantage:  There will be a certain class of people whom the President has rubbed the wrong way, and who would simply never vote for him.

That last-mentioned advantage is the flip side of Romney's "47%."  In this case, it's quite clear that it was more than 30% -- just listen to a little AM talk-radio.  And to be fair, let's acknowledge that Romney's "47%" is just wrong -- the figure of people who would vote for Obama "no matter what" was probably more like 30%.   So just to keep the math simple, let's say that each side had 30% in the bag, and there was 40% up for grabs.  In this economy, I think that's a fair assessment.

And yet the Republican primary system required Romney to pander shamelessly to the 30% that the Republicans already had (that would never have voted for Obama anyway), with the result that by the time of the conventions, he had already alienated a good deal of the 40% that was up for grabs.  While he tried to shift ground, he ultimately overdid it by becoming downright dishonest, and certainly a good percentage of the uncommitted held that against him.

If the Republicans had had any sense, they would have found a middle-of-the-road candidate early on and let him or her appeal to all of those in the 40% who were disappointed by Obama.  That candidate could have simply run on the "repeal Obamacare" and "fix the economy" message from the get-go while agreeing with almost everything else that Obama was doing or had done.

It would have been easy to run a campaign around repealing Obamacare that might have actually appealed to the majority of the country that does not like it.  The government had a chance to actually use its leverage -- as the biggest and growing-bigger consumer of health care in the country -- to do something to control the price of health care.  But instead, the administration essentially bought off the biggest profiteers in the health care industry -- the drug companies and the insurance companies -- by promising them as good or greater profits than ever before.  And put a big financial burden on a lot of hardworking Americans, although (of course) that burden was not set to really kick in until after this election.

By focusing on Obamacare rather than promising insane tax cuts, a Republican candidate with just a modicum of charisma could have been elected pretty easily this time around.
.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bill Clinton vs. David Petraeus vs. JFK


or Monica Lewinsky vs. Paula Broadwell vs. Mimi Alford.



Clinton
Petraeus
JFK

Age of Paramour

23

39

19

Education of Paramour

College

Graduate, Military

High School

Attractiveness of Paramour

High (on good days)

High, esp. when you include accomplishments

High

Discretion of Paramour

Not much (trusted Linda Tripp)

Not much (but at least she used Internet cafes)

High (almost 50 years)

Sexual Experience of Paramour
Unknown
Unknown
None

Equality of Relationship

Low

Reasonably high

Low

Seriousness of Male Interest

Fleeting

Reasonably high

Obsessive, at least for a year after first seeing her

Mutuality of Emotional Attachment

Weak
Strong
Ambiguous
Paramour Demonstration of Affection
Submission to Cigar
Something under the desk
Sex Act on Aide, but drew the line at Teddy


Illegal Behavior Attributable to Affair
Perjury, subornation of perjury
Compromise of classified information (probably)
Drug use

Immediate Action on being
Discovered by Someone Who Might Disclose

Denial

Admission

Unknown/NA

Longer-Term Action on being discovered

Denial

Resignation

Unknown/NA

Action upon being confronted with DNA evidence

Admission

N/A

N/A

Who broke it off?

Man

Not clear, some say woman

Woman, upon getting engaged

Surprise to Country

Not much

Significant

Unknown

Surprise to Spouse

Not much

Unknown

Unknown

Harm to Country

Huge - Got GW Bush Elected

Unknown at this stage

Not much (we survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, even thought they were together)

Harm to Career

Not much, in the long term

Severe and unlikely to regain former stratospheric level

None

Harm to Wife

Not much; she was used to it, and got elected Senator

Unknown, probably considerable



Unknown

Ok, that helped.   I don't know what it proves, but I needed a side-by-side-by-side comparison, and now I've got it, and so do you.  If I've left something out, please let me know.