“Politics” Category

CNET Article On Email Privacy Was Wrong

Forbes’s Kashmir Hill reports that the CNET article I linked to yesterday, which reported that Senator Patrick Leahy was pushing a bill that would allow government agencies to access email and other online private communications without a warrant, is wrong:

The version of the bill that Declan McCullagh excerpts in his report appears to be one of many that have been drafted and passed around, but is not a version that would be considered seriously at a hearing to review the bill next week.

“Senator Leahy does not support broad carve outs for warrantless searches of email content,” says a Senate Judiciary aide. “He remains committed to upholding privacy laws and updating the outdated Electronic Privacy Communications Act.”

Good news.

November 21st, 2012

The Automated Future

For the last few decades, we have struggled with how to employ manufacturing workers who lost their well-paid job with great benefits due to a globalized economy. When workers in another part of the world are willing to work for a fraction of what it costs to manufacture something in the United States, it’s obvious why companies move their manufacturing operations: it’s a significant cost advantage and, worse, if they don’t, their competitors will. This is only more true today. In January, Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reported for the New York Times that for technology products especially, the labor cost itself is less important. What matters is that Asia—especially China—is the only place where every part of the supply chain exists in one region, that can manufacture quickly and at immense scale.

Manufacturing, too, is increasingly automated. The human’s role in actually putting things together is decreasing. Automation on large scale for identical products, like cars, has been a reality for decades. What’s happening now, though, is that smaller scale, small production runs are being automated as well. Rethink Robotics has created a robot called Baxter that can be “taught” how to do repeating tasks, and can work around humans. Rethink Robotics says Baxter can work for the equivalent of $4 an hour. Vanguard Plastics, a 30-person company in Connecticut, is using Baxter for menial tasks. Vanguard’s president, Chris Budnick, says that workers who did these jobs before are not being laid off, but are now assigned to “higher-level” tasks like training Baxter for each new production run.

Robots like Baxter are a work multiplier. Whereas before Vanguard required humans to do menial tasks, now they only need humans to train robots how to do something. But many more people are required to do the menial tasks than are required to train robots, so while no one may be losing their job now, they will need to find new productive tasks for them in the future—or eliminate their jobs. As robots like Baxter get better, too, manufactures will need even fewer employees to train them.

Other industries face very similar problems. Retail salespersons and cashiers, for example, account for nearly 6 percent of all jobs in the U.S., but are increasingly irrelevant. For many products, shopping online is more convenient and cheaper. Tower Records, Blockbuster and Borders all failed fundamentally because purchasing music, movies and books online is much better than paying more money for the privilege of driving to a store, hoping they have what you want and waiting in line. Even grocery stores are reducing their need for cashiers by employing self-checkout machines, which allow customers to scan and pay for items on their own and require only one employee to monitor several self-checkout machines.

Almost all of the jobs lost due to offshoring and automation have been low or semi-skilled kinds of jobs. Manufacturing jobs required training, but certainly did not require several years of specialty education and training to do. Retail sales and cashier positions require almost zero training. It would appear, then, that since offshoring and automation are eliminating low and semi-skilled jobs, we can re-orient our economy toward “knowledge work,” or work whose primary task is thinking. Examples of these kinds of jobs are software engineers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, managers and scientists. These kinds of jobs require a tremendous investment in education and training, and therefore seem not to fall prey to offshoring and automation.

In The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford asks a very good question: “What is the likely economic impact of machines or computers that begin to catch up with—and maybe even surpass—the average person’s capability to do a typical job?” Or, more provocatively: If computers can already beat the best chess players in the world, isn’t it likely that they will also soon be able to perform many routine jobs?

Ford argues that not only is this true, as we’re seeing for manufacturing and retail jobs, but that it is also true for highly-skilled knowledge work jobs. Think about what a radiologist does. Much of what they do is read routine x-rays or CT and MRI scans to diagnose issues with patients. Since radiology is increasingly digital, and knowledge of what different conditions and diseases look like can be digitally represented and algorithmically identified, it’s likely that some of what human radiologists do today—the more routine, easy to identify cases—will be handled by computers instead. Doing so will dramatically decrease costs for hospitals because they will have to employ less doctors, which require large salaries, health insurance, vacation and sick days, and have to be hired and managed. Computers don’t.

The same, of course, is true for much of what general practice doctors do as well. Computers like IBM’s Watson could diagnose patients with routine things like the flu and provide a treatment as well. In fact, because Watson would have access to exponentially more medical research, journal articles, studies and patient history (and aggregate patient data), Watson may very well provide better diagnoses and treatments than the average human doctor.

Ford points out this is true for other fields, too, like law. He writes:

Currently there are jobs in the United States for many thousands of lawyers who rarely, if ever, go into a courtroom. These attorneys are employed in the areas of legal research and contracts. They work at law firms and spend much of their time in the library or accessing legal databases through their computers. They research case law, and write briefs which summarize relevant court cases and legal strategies from the past.… Can a computer do the lawyer’s job? (70-71)

Is there any reason to think that computers will never be able to do this kind of basic research and summarization? I don’t think so. What this suggests is that automation will challenge many kinds of knowledge work just as much as low and semi-skilled work. Indeed, companies will have even more reason to automate these kinds of jobs, because they are generally very well-paid jobs.

Manufacturing and retail job elimination, then, is just the first wave of many to come. The question, though, is not how to get those jobs back and protect the ones that still exist. That isn’t going to happen, is counter-productive and a waste of time. The question to ask is, when many of the jobs people depend on our automated, what kind of jobs will they do instead?

That question is, I think, the most important question to answer for the next few decades.

I have some ideas, but for now, I just want to ask the question and want you to think about it. How do we productively employ these people?

November 21st, 2012

The Republican Study Committee’s Excellent Paper On Copyright

The Republican Study Committee published an excellent paper criticizing current copyright law (PDF):

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.

It’s cogently written and insightful. I highly recommend reading it.

Unfortunately, the RSC pulled the paper after only a day. Here’s their reason why:

“On issues where there are several different perspectives among our members, our policy briefs should reflect that. This policy brief presented one view among conservatives on U.S. copyright law,” said RSC spokesman Brian Straessle. “Due to an oversight in our review process, it did not account for the full range of perspectives among our members. It was removed from the website to address that concern.”

Perhaps. And if it re-appears soon along with arguments as to why our current copyright laws should be maintained, that will be fine. But if that isn’t the case, it’s shameful that the RSC pulled a smart paper.

November 19th, 2012

Big Losses, Bigger Paychecks

Megan McArdle tries to explain why executives at failing companies often receive large amounts of compensation:

Again, you may be tempted to say, “Good riddance!” But you have perhaps not considered the problem of who you will get to replace them. Getting people to stay on a sinking ship may be challenging, but it is nothing compared to the task of getting them to leap off a safe vessel and onto your wildly pitching decks. People who have worked for the firm have non-cash reasons to stay: they know the people and the routines. People who don’t work for the firm have all those reasons not to join you–unless they are so incompetent that no one else will hire them. So keeping a tight lid on management pay during a turnaround makes it likely that you will lose your good people and have to replace them with someone else’s bad people. This is not a recipe for a good turnaround.

November 19th, 2012

The G.O.P.’s Demographic Excuse

Ross Douthat writes that Republicans should focus on addressing today’s economic issues, rather than try to pander to different demographic groups:

As the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen writes, it should be possible for Republicans to oppose an overweening and intrusive state while still recognizing that “government can give average people a hand up to achieve the American Dream.” It should be possible for the party to reform and streamline government while also addressing middle-class anxieties about wages, health care, education and more.

The good news is that such an agenda already exists, at least in embryonic form. Thanks to four years of intellectual ferment, Republicans seeking policy renewal have a host of thinkers and ideas to draw from: Luigi Zingales and Jim Pethokoukis on crony capitalism, Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein on tax policy, Frederick Hess on education reform, James Capretta on alternatives to Obamacare, and many more.

Absolutely right. The reason to change the party’s positions on immigration and gay marriage is not because it will appeal to Hispanics and young people, but because the party’s current positions are wrong. Doing so, though, is not sufficient to re-make the party. The GOP must create smart proposals for how to solve issues like the economy’s short-term lack of growth and longer-term structural issues, the increasingly blurred line between government and the financial industry, the unsustainable path our entitlement programs are on, and our education system. There is not a shortage of smart conservative thinkers, but the party has thus far mostly refused to embrace their ideas. That must change.

November 12th, 2012

Keith Hennessey’s Analysis of the Fiscal Cliff Statements

Keith Hennessey wrote an excellent analysis of Speaker Boehner’s and President Obama’s statements regarding the fiscal cliff:

I will describe and interpret both leaders’ statements, then offer a little analysis of the two positions together. I need to emphasize that at this early stage, anyone’s interpretations and predictions are highly speculative. I am doing little more than making educated guesses; then again, so is everyone else.

November 12th, 2012

Calm Down

Kevin Drum thinks everyone—right and left—should calm down a bit. He also briefly makes a point we should be thinking a lot more about:

Oh, and smart people on both sides of the aisle should start thinking seriously about how to handle a future in which smart machines do more and more work and humans do less and less. I’m dead serious about this.

November 8th, 2012

Yuval Levin’s Take On the Election

Yuval Levin:

The job of conservatism, and to the extent that it is a conservative party then also the job of the Republican Party, is to lay out its vision before voters in an attractive and serious way, to show them how it builds on America’s strengths to address America’s weaknesses, how it enables human thriving, how it could be applied to the particular problems we face today in ways that would help solve those problems, and why it is good for each and all of us Americans. That means we need to speak to a coherent and appealing understanding of American life today, and that we need to translate our ideas into very concrete policy particulars that would advance them.

I would like to turn readers to an excellent piece Levin wrote in September as well:

But I think the argument we’re actually having—or rather the disagreement that actually underlies our politics just now—is really about the deeper question of the structure of American life. The Left’s description of its own worldview (that when we do things together, that’s called government) reveals an astonishingly thin notion of American society, which understands that society as consisting of only individuals and the government, and which neither discerns nor desires much of consequence in the space between the two. But most of life, and especially American life, is lived precisely in the space between those two—that space where the family, civil society, and the private economy thrive, and in turn allow us to thrive.

November 8th, 2012

Boehner Wants a Compromise On the Budget

House Republicans want a compromise on the fiscal cliff:

House Speaker John Boehner offered Wednesday to pursue a deal with a victorious President Barack Obama that will include higher taxes “under the right conditions” to help reduce the nation’s staggering debt and put its finances in order.

“Mr. President, this is your moment,” Boehner told reporters, speaking about the “fiscal cliff” that will hit in January. “We want you to lead.”

Boehner said House Republicans are asking Obama “to make good on a balanced approach” that would including spending cuts and address government social benefit programs.

To which all I have to say: Thank God.

Now, Senate Republicans, drop in-line, and Obama—let’s get this done.

November 7th, 2012

Re-Making the GOP

President Obama won a decisive victory last night. He won the popular vote by a thin margin, and he didn’t dominate the electoral college as he did in 2008, but there’s no doubt about it: it was decisive. The GOP only peeled off Indiana and North Carolina from Obama’s 2008 electoral haul, and that poor performance was despite a weak economy.

To be clear, though, this wasn’t a 1996 or 1984-like trouncing. It was a close election in a divided nation—Romney barely lost Florida and lost Ohio by a small margin, too. But this performance is predicated on a declining group: white, heavily male, older voters. Obama dominated young and minority voters. Obama received support from 93 percent of black voters, 71 percent of Hispanics and 73 percent of Asians. And of voters ages 18-29 (which increased from 18 percent of voters in 2008 to 19 percent in 2012), 60 percent supported Obama. 89 percent of Mitt Romney’s votes came from whites, which are declining as a percentage of the population.

I’ve been saying this since 2008. The GOP has tied itself to whites—specifically, older, male, evangelical whites—which is a very, very dumb thing to do when the country is changing. Megan McArdle makes a fine argument that the Democrats’ new coalition will fracture in the future, which may be true enough, but the GOP still must be an acceptable alternative for younger voters, minority voters, and women. In 2012, it wasn’t, and if their positions remain the same on gay marriage and immigration in particular (and so stringent on abortion, to a lesser extent), they won’t be in the future, either. Anecdotally, among libertarian or even conservative-leaning younger voters, the GOP is a joke for their positions.

John Weaver, a former John McCain campaign strategist makes the case:

“We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party,” Mr. Weaver said in an interview. “And to do the latter we have to fix our Hispanic problem as quickly as possible, we’ve got to accept science and start calling out these false equivalencies when they occur within our party about things that are just not true, and not tolerate the intolerant.”

He’s absolutely right. The GOP’s intransigence and quasi-racist rhetoric on immigration has contributed to a dramatic erosion of their Hispanic vote. In 2004, Bush—who valiantly fought his own party to reform immigration policy, and lost—received almost 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2008, McCain received 31 percent. And in 2012, Romney only took 27 percent. Is that any surprise? It shouldn’t be. And yet Republicans continue with their politically and logically idiotic immigration positions.

Gay marriage works in a similar manner to immigration for the young. For the young, gay marriage is not even something worth debating; 63 percent of millennials support legalizing gay marriage. The GOP’s opposition to it makes the party look like an anachronistic joke, a party irrelevant to their decision.

The GOP’s positions on immigration and gay marriage have to change, and change dramatically. That’s the reality, and more importantly, that’s the right thing to do—because the party’s positions are wrong on these issues. The GOP claims it is for small government and federalism, claims it believes this nation was built on the hard work of immigrants, and then goes on to say the federal government should ban gays from marrying, calls American citizens born to illegal immigrants and legal immigrants “anchor babies,” and says we should send the children illegal immigrants bring with them back to a country they’ve never known. Politics is a game of hypocrisy, but that’s hypocrisy on a massive level, and it’s wrong.

That has to change. It must change. The GOP has the potential for a strong philosophical appeal to young voters—it could be the party that believes while government has a significant role in regulating the economy and providing for the needy, we need to fulfill those needs in a fiscally-responsible manner, and we must maintain a society where individuals working together voluntarily are at the forefront of our society, rather than forcing most decisions—economic and social—through the federal government.

There’s potential there, but without fixing these issues, the party doesn’t stand a chance. The first step is to change the party’s positions on the issues listed, and to call out the intolerant elements within the party who have gone untouched for too long. I’ve tried to publicly and privately criticize the homophobic, xenophobic and sometimes racist elements of the party when I run into them, but I don’t think I’ve done enough to make it an issue. It isn’t enough to criticize it when I run into it. The only way to eliminate the intolerant in this party is to actively call it out, actively point it out, and make it unacceptable.

Everyone in this party needs to work toward re-making the party, because unless we do it, there won’t be a party left to rebuild. The Romney campaign attempted to win this election by not being Obama, and by being a generic Republican. The American people repudiated that approach. It didn’t work. Perhaps a different candidate would have won, someone not so susceptible to the Obama campaign’s caricature of the wealthy, but Romney is a moderate who was forced to move hard to the right on social issues and immigration, so I’m skeptical of that being the case. The far-right in the party forced Romney to abandon his more moderate roots, so I’ve no doubt they would have done the same to any other candidate, too. And whatever the case, demographics are moving away from the GOP, so they must change.

The current GOP is wrong politically and wrong morally. We must re-make it.

November 7th, 2012

The Auto Bankruptcy Myth

Luigi Zingales explains why the myth that Romney would have let GM liquidate is, well, a myth:

When finally both GM and Chrysler went to bankruptcy, Romney would have extended the same lines of credit the Obama administration did, but without pushing for a redistribution of value in bankruptcy, redistribution that favored the unions at the expense of the other more senior creditors.

Finally, Romney would have not forced GM to waste so much money in a useless electric car (the Chevy Volt) that found no clients. Thus, the fact that Obama saved a car industry that would have died otherwise is a myth. The reality is that Obama used taxpayers money to subsidize the unions.

November 6th, 2012

Why I Love the Electoral College

Garrett Jones:

There’s some evidence that democracy itself makes people happier, but largely I see democracy as a means to an end.  One among those ends is “reducing social conflict.”  

The electoral college, set forth in the U.S. Constitution, is a great tool for reducing social conflict across regions of the United States.  You might think that’s a crazy claim–don’t we see maps of red and blue, and aren’t the red places–the places supporting the Republican–mostly in the South and Midwest?  Indeed, and that pattern across regions is key to explaining how the electoral college defuses some social tension.  

Smart piece.

November 6th, 2012

Drug Abuse in Portugal Drops by Half After Decriminalization

After decriminalizing all drug use in 2001, Portugal’s drug abuse has dropped by half:

The number of addicts considered “problematic” — those who repeatedly use “hard” drugs and intravenous users — had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said.

Infections among intravenous users and drug-related crimes have dropped significantly as well.

Portugal’s policy is to provide drug addicts with treatment rather than put them in prison. Our country would be better off with a similar policy.

November 1st, 2012

Obama: American people need to know how I make national security decisions

Barack Obama, while on The Daily Show:

‘Whatever else I have done throughout the course of my presidency the one thing that I’ve been absolutely clear about is that America’s security comes, and the American people need to know exactly how I make decisions when it comes to war, peace, security, and protecting Americans.

‘And they will continue to get that over the next four years of my presidency.’

Except, apparently, for when he will kill American citizens with drone strikes, when he will support the people overthrowing one ally’s government but not the other, and when he will intervene in one country’s revolution but not another. Because this administration’s policies are not at all clear on those issues.

October 19th, 2012

Let the Lobbyists Flood In

Timothy Carney skewers Anna Palmer’s article for Politico about how a Romney administration would open the floodgates for lobbyists back into the White House that President Obama closed:

Yeah, I bet those Republican lobbyists will get envious stares from the likes of Fannie Mae, Cigna, Credit Suisse lobbyist Laricke Blanchard (4), whom Obama named deputy director of policy for the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. Former teachers union lobbyist Gabriella Gomez (5) would be jealous – if her job as assistant secretary of Education gave her the time for such self-indulgence. Former crop-industry lobbyist Krysta Harden (6) must be thinking “why couldn’t I get a government job – besides my job as assistant secretary of Agriculture.”

October 17th, 2012