Tag Archives: politics

What To Say about Wikileaks

Now that Clay Shirkey has posted the following on Wikileaks, there’s very little left for me to say. Shirky expresses I hope the discomfort of many when they read of otherwise wise individuals embracing the idea of extralegal action against Wikileaks (including thinly veiled threats of violence.) Are people nuts?

So I’ll restrict my comments to some thoughts about how the Wikileaks/open internet controversy appears to me to be part of the next big battle in the millenia-long war over the proper relationship between government and society.  When I was a kid in college, some 35 years ago, I came to hope that government is in essence a temporary construct, a necessary evil. Humans need to cooperate on a whole host of transactions to make living with each other more pleasant, particularly as we clumped into larger and larger groups, and for millenia we’ve decided to hand over day-to day responsibility for this management function to something we call government. Actually we didn’t quite always hand it over; in the beginning some people or institutions such as warriors, priests, or religions actually just kind of grabbed the power and the populations essentially acquiesced. But even before the ancient Greeks, some communities were trying to figure out ways to handle these transactions and resolve differences in ways that didn’t require the creation of a permanent governing class, which unfortunately throughout history has tended to acquire a PERSONALITY OF ITS OWN, and, darn it, not always a very pleasant one.

So for all my adult life, I’ve been kind of a practical libertarian in the sense I always thought government was a lamentable but unavoidable fact of the human condition. (Along with this conviction, is the related view that the worst characteristic of humans is the desire to control others–the conviction that “I know the best way forward and you’re going to follow me or else.” (I’m afraid, based on admittedly incomplete knowledge, that Julian Assange suffers this all-too-common affliction) That’s why I tweeted the other day that the people I most admire in history have been those with radical goals who adopted moderate tactics. It’s always seemed to me that your pursuit of change always has to leave open the possibility you might be wrong and/or that better ideas exist. Going a little bit more slowly than your ardent followers would want is one way of accommodating that possibility.)

But back to imagining a good world with minimal Government. In the last ten years or so,  the internet revolution, the ability to link millions across the globe in essentially peaceful dialogue (Twitter) got me to hoping  we might eventually think our way through to a self-organizing planet. Woohoo!! Now there are lots of problems, not the least of which is the “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the “I’m better, you’re not”, and the “We’re together, you’re the ‘other'” pathologies that plague the planet. I know, I know, but, gosh, a Puerto Rican can hope.

This revolution underway is not, of course, the first global revolution against previous concepts of government. The Age of Enlightenment marked by the American and French Revolutions, essentially discredited the “divine right of kings” concept of government.  And the collapse of the remaining aristocracies at the beginning of the last century brought down the idea that only a particular, genetically-defined group of people could serve as the governing class. (I know this is a distorted thumbnail view of history, I’m leaving out all the really thrilling economic bits, for example, not to mention the cultural dimension, but I’m already at 580 words…)

And so the Wikileaks controversy is unfortunately part of the next battle in this effort to define the relationship between government and society. What’s at stake in this battle is the idea that governments require secrecy and control of information to protect its citizens and that there are a lot of things that citizens just don’t need to know. Many people are arguing against this concept, including many politicians who are winning elections based on the call for more open and transparent government. Many existing governments  in power, in fact, are demanding that other governments be more open.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t think Wikileaks is a particularly good ally to have in this battle, because it is taking an absolutist position–nothing needs to be secret –and because it is increasingly clear it’s agenda is not really about open government and transparency. Before its most recent leaks, most advocates of open government probably viewed Wikileaks much in the same way Winston Churchill viewed Josef Stalin during World War II; now advocates of open government and transparency need to be clear as to whether they want Wikileaks to represent their goals and vision. I don’t.

But that doesn’t mean I completely support how governments are reacting. One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that when something unfortunate happens, it is difficult to contain the damage; lots of other suboptimal consequences follow. Eventually we will navigate  through this period and come to a better understanding and an agreement between government and the governed as to what is appropriate transparency. I suspect this transparency will be much greater than most members of the governing class can imagine today. And it will be a necessary precondition for much greater social self-organization and much smaller and less secret government.

Advertisements

Do We Have to Choose between Transparency and Real Authority?

A friend sent me this email in response to my last blog post. He has agreed to let me post his thoughtful reply on my blog:

I enjoyed your recent blog post “Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween“.

I wanted to push back on your first scary idea (actually listed as number five) about making your ideas public.   The story you used involved a man who doesn’t even own a computer and his inability to comprehend why someone would want to share their ideas.

My question to you is who is more out of touch?  Him or you? How powerful was this man?  How much authority does he wield?  If refusing to share broadly is such a disability in today’s networked world, why do so few people who have power and authority actively engage in the conversation?  Could it be because they have real power and authority?

I may be reading more into your scary idea than you intended as you only speak about the complexities of the challenges we face.  However, your statement exudes the air of someone who feels all but certain their view is right when all of the evidence around us suggests that traditional power comes through quiet networking amongst a select group of individuals of roughly equal stature.   Even powerhouses who participate broadly in today’s global conversation make their deals in private meetings, not in public.   The real decision over who will partner with whom to accomplish something remains opaque until well after the deal is sealed.

I do believe we are on the fault line of two tectonic plates colliding (opacity and transparency) and that, at least at the moment, transparency is putting up a good fight.   If history is any guide, the opacity plate has tremendous resistance to movement and often lurches back in earthquake-like convulsions.   I think the lack of trust of large organizations today is interlinked with this idea.  Large organizations are always complex jumbles of partially formed deals, challenges, and new ideas.  Organizations have to lie to anyone outside their walls to protect those ideas (intellectual property, legal issues, pre-decisional material, etc) as well as their very existence and thus there is real schizophrenia in their actions.  When confronted with one of these falsehoods they rationalize their actions by saying “we weren’t at liberty to divulge that information at the time” or “that was proprietary information” or “it would be improper to talk about the deal before it is finalized” or “it was classified”.  To those outside though each episode is another withdrawal from the trust bank account.   Yet, the folks in charge of these organizations wield tremendous power and can, for the most part, weather these storms because the entire apparatus around them is designed to protect them and keep itself going.   They have tremendous capital.  They have tremendous legal authority.  They have tremendous ability to legislate, investigate, shape, pressure, buyout, and influence.

In your recent speech you described two possible models for the “motor” that runs the world and then proceeded to categorize people by which motor they believe is the true driver of world events.  This duality, IMHO, misses nuance and complexity.  For instance, a third model, can be some weird hybrid in which the benefits of large high-mass organizations as described above sustain opacity and give those who run them very real advantages even if they aren’t consciously and intentionally undertaking “secret agreements and machinations” but rather just trying to advance and protect their organization. That same size and complexity creates vulnerabilities and blind spots to the organic and unpredictable nature of the world in which they reside.  Historically, the benefits of the large organization have outweighed the disadvantages.  The question in my mind is whether that equation is changing.

As a complex planet with complex problems will we always need these large complex organizations from Exxon to the USG to Salvation Army to manage the globe’s complexity?   If the answer is yes, then I believe it is likely the primary centers of power will almost certainly continue to reside with folks who do not broadly share their views and ideas  in a global conversation because the organizations around them will demand they remain silent for a whole host of reasons and because to succeed in those organizations requires cunning and bureaucratic savvy that is the antitheses of a dynamic dialog.   When transparency gets too close to unraveling these centers of power, they use their heft to put things back in the bottle.  As one example, a researcher used publicly available information to show all of the infrastructure that was below Manhattan only to have the “system” react by classifying the report and having it removed from the web. When RIM provides security that is too good, India demands a back door, as does the US, as does Saudi Arabia, and countless others.   Products quietly are discontinued.  Tools quietly disappear.  Information quietly disappears from Google.  Capabilities are hobbled.   The examples are too numerous to count.

If the answer is no, large organizations are not required (maybe not even healthy) for the planet to effectively deal with the complexity of the challenges we face as a global community and a global society, what does that transition look like?

What the Tea Party and Evolutionary Theory have in Common

The other day I read two interesting articles in the 14 October NY Review of Books. One was a review by H. Allen Orr of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness; the other was a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice by Samuel Freeman. (Unfortunately both pieces are behind the pay wall but the links get you  to the first few paragraphs of each.) The Price of Altruism explores the fascinating but tragic life of George Price who at one point set out to explain how creatures could exhibit altruism even when such behavior defied that predicted by the theory of evolution, specifically natural selection. As the reviewer notes, Darwin himself understood that altruistic behavior was not well-explained by the dynamic of natural selection. “How could natural selection promote or even allow behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?”  George Price developed mathematical equations in the last century that essentially could be said to prove that natural selection WITHIN a group favors selfishness but that natural selection AMONG groups would favor altruistic behavior. “Groups including many cooperative individuals will do better, as a group, than those including many uncooperative individuals.”

So, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the Tea Party. For that we have to turn to the book The Idea of Justice. (unlike the first book, I’ve actually been reading The Idea of Justice and am about halfway through.) In the book Amartya Sen explains how a just society and a fair society are not really the same thing. As he uses the word, a just society would be one that maximizes the overall potential of the people in that society, even though this maximization might result in certain individuals not being able to make the best use of their personal capabilities. (Think here of governments that impose progressive tax policies.) A society that was fair to individuals, i.e. allowed each individual unfettered ability to reap the gains of his or her capabilities, would, on the other hand, almost certainly not be just. (I’m paraphrasing Sen’s much more complicated argument.) It is also interesting to contemplate which of the two societies would be optimal based on some impartial standard, if such existed. Would the fair or just society come closer to approaching the ideal?

So this got me to thinking about the Tea Party. The Tea Party Movement’s emphasis on minimal government interference with individual lives and choices (except of course for homosexuals and women) is in essence an expression of pure Natural Selection as a Governance Philosophy. The philosophy of the Tea Party Movement supports a fair society above a just one. Which strikes me as somewhat odd, given that the majority of Tea Party supporters, judging by their candidates, oppose the unchallenged teaching of evolution. My guess is that the average member of the Tea Party movement would either assert that the “natural selection” society would be the best possible or just not be interested at all in the concept of a best society–just some nutty, socialist thinking that.

It’s an interesting question to ponder, or at least I find it interesting. What should we strive for? Our maximum individual fulfillment or the maximum betterment of our group, by which I mean humanity. One would hope the two are not often in conflict, but I know that is not the case. Isn’t this in fact the fundamental question in political life?

So why is it that it’s never discussed?

Attitude Adjustment

A Twitter mate wrote me that the “Collapse” meme was strong on the internet today. “Collapse of what?” Of the US empire, of course. I myself had fed the meme earlier in the day by ReTweeting a reference to Otto Scharmer’s blog post from earlier this month where he wrote how stark the decline in the US appears after returning from a summer of visiting more vibrant nations overseas. (Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT.) Scharmer also referenced the arguments of Johan Galtung, who predicts the fall of the US empire by 2020.

I think the evidence is pretty clear that the US is in a period of economic decline relative to much of the world–we’re just not growing as fast as they are. The US, which accounted for 50% of the world GDP immediately after WWII, accounts for something like 20% today, and as long as other, very large economies such as India, China, and Brazil continue to grow at 2 to 3 times the US rate, our share of the world economy will decline further. The Congressional Research Service in 2007 cited statistics that by 2025, the Chinese GDP would be 50% bigger than that of the US, although its per capita income would still only be about 40% of the US level.

This need not have any significant impact on US prosperity; in fact, overall growth in the world economy, if we manage it responsibly and sustainably, should be a good thing for everyone.  But it will change the dynamics of the world economy in ways we cannot fully anticipate today. World capital flows will change, US foreign investment patterns will change, other economies will become centers of world-class innovation and education, human talent will flow in different directions, and world investors will have many more stable options to park their long-term funds.

It’s harder to tease out exactly how these changes will alter US ability to project power, but the strong sense is that they will, even if, and this is important, countries such as China, India, and Brazil never have a bad word to say about the US. Leaner defense budgets are in our future. And I also suspect that, as these other countries emerge as world economic engines, the mantle of economic and diplomatic leadership will at first imperceptibly but eventually steadily slip off US shoulders. As China becomes the EU’s largest trading partner, for example, it will only be natural for Bonn and Paris to worry more about what Beijing thinks. Again, this need not be a horrible thing.

But we can certainly turn it into a horrible thing. That’s the problem with all this “collapse of empire” talk. It tends to feed the tendency of Americans to think we’re on the road to ruin and that therefore drastic measures are necessary to reverse the dynamic. Now that would indeed be unfortunate, because it is exactly this kind of overreacting that could lead to a messy denouement. Grandstanding and puffing out our depleted pectorals will only divert us from what we need to do, which is to begin to shift money away from military-oriented spending to investments in human and societal development that will allow us to compete effectively in a more balanced world. (And by the way, I don’t think it’s up to government to do all the investing.)

Generally I’m bullish about the US capability to do well in this competition. But one not so small thing gives me pause. America’s mental shortcuts for thinking about the rest of the world are not very helpful, and these shortcuts unfortunately spring from our founding legends and myths. So as Americans we learn that:

  • We were founded by people who wanted to escape the messy ways of bickering nation-states and it’s best to remain independent from them and Self-Sufficient.
  • Almost all problems scale to individual solutions. At worst, maybe every once in a while Americans have to voluntarily form a small group to tackle something difficult. (The only real exception to this is the military) So essentially we believe Complexity is Un-American.

So let’s stop writing about the collapsing empire–and please don’t bring in the comparison to Rome, which after all occured like 2000 years ago. I’m tired of it already and it’s just applying old vocabulary and concepts to describe a world dynamic that will be new, different, and exciting. And let’s concentrate on what really matters–a long overdue Attitude Adjustment.

On Another Subject: What is the Difference Between Government and Community?

One of the things I like best about my public identity is that advertisers and spammers are in disagreement as to my gender, my age, whether or not I know how to speak English, and, most interesting, my political affiliation. I get bombarded with emails from every possible political angle. Today I received one from a very conservative group who is worried that schools will soon start forcing boys to wear dresses and that an army of 80k troops is lurking to put down civil unrest. Normally I would pay little attention to such an email, in the same way I wouldn’t pay attention to one from the opposite end of the spectrum. But the tag line on the email grabbed my attention:

The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

Well, I agree with that I thought. Everything I know about history and human nature tells me that governments which purport to take care of a long list of needs for individuals somehow mess up the essential motivational structure of the human being.  And accounts from many totalitarian states agree that the dignity of the human and her independence suffer horrifically under these regimes. Among the eeriest things I ever watch are the documentaries about the so-called life of ordinary citizens in North Korea.

But I do have one caveat about the phrase. And I present it in the form of a question: What is the difference between government and community? Because if you replaced the word government in that phrase with the word community it stops making sense.

The bigger the community, the smaller the citizen.

That doesn’t sound right. Being a member of a thriving community enriches the life of an individual. That’s why urban areas worldwide are the essential centers of innovation and economic activity. That’s why individuals find mega-churches enriching, both socially and spiritually. And that’s why, in all but the rarest of cases, hermits seem like very diminished persons indeed.

My memory of civics class tells me government is, at its best, an expression of the community. This tendency to see government as some type of monstrous entity independent of the individuals it serves is very disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like very much the survey of political attitudes on Nolanchart.com that’s been bouncing around Facebook the last couple of weeks. Government is presented as some kind of monolithic THING that acts independently of the wishes of any citizens. The agenda of the government is somehow seen as completely independent of the agenda of the citizens. This is an unhealthy view. In a democracy, the agenda of any elected government will of course not be to the liking of some citizens (perhaps even 50% minus 1) but regardless of which side we’re on, we cannot view the expression of another reasonable view as illegitimate.

One last point rant. This depiction of government as an independent, weight-throwing monolith also carries with it the view of bureaucrats as evil, aspiring tyrants. Here’s my problem with that. For the life of me, I don’t understand how we bureaucrats can be both lazy and stupid AND evil and dominating, but I’ll leave that to cleverer people to explain.