Trump, Democracy, and Power

I’m working on a post about the political implications of Trump’s victory, but for now, let’s look at what Trump’s win tells us about democracy and government legitimacy.

I’ve seen some people on the left trying to reach out and understand the concerns of Trump voters. This is absolutely welcome, and in a future post I will talk about which of those concerns make sense, and which don’t. However, if you’re only considering other points of view because you lost an election, you may be thinking about politics and government all wrong. The goal of government policy shouldn’t be to cater to the whims and desires of the people who voted and supported the winning coalition, while crushing the unbelievers under a savage reign of public shaming and thought crime. Unfortunately, it feels like much of the social justice left adopted this mentality, and so we now might be forced under a right-wing government that has countered by taking this same governing strategy to heart. Policy should be about creating the best outcomes we can, which I think largely results from allowing individuals to make as many of their own decisions as possible with minimal government interference. That means allowing for a broad range of activities and types of commerce to occur, but it also means opposing expansion of government power.

Of course, the best way to do that right now is to point out that political victory doesn’t mean Trump supporters have any good ideas about improving the country, or even their own situations. The expansion of government action and government power Trump has promised are still terrible regardless of any democratic outcome.

I’m aware this is harsh, and it’s part of what Trump voters are complaining about when they say coastal elites are ignoring them, but I’m not (and have never) dismissed their concerns as racism and xenophobia; I tried to look at Trump’s policies themselves. The problem is that Trump never met me or anyone else on policy grounds. He has few ideas, and the ones he does have are pretty crappy. Against Trump acknowledged the left had done plenty of bad things, but Trump promised things at least as bad.

Moreover, the left (and maybe even the right) shouldn’t be saying “I live in a democracy, so apparently Trump’s ideas are legitimate because he won an election”. They should be saying “Maybe democracy is dangerous if it legitimizes tyranny, and maybe we should limit the power of the state to reduce the risks democracy poses”. In fact, they probably should have been saying this for the last eight years.

Being skeptical of democracy isn’t so bad. Democracies don’t always come to good solutions to problems. Supposing a majority of voters have elected one candidate over another, it’s several steps of logic to then say that a single rejection of one candidate in an election of dozens of issues then constitutes that the winning candidate’s stance on a particular issues is (A) popular and (B) effective. Add in that Trump did not actually win the popular vote, and, the fact that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there is no knowable community preference on any issue which had 3 or more possible stances to choose from.  And even if voters could all agree on a single popular issues, there’s no reason their favorite policy would actually work.

What I’m trying to say is that despite whatever concerns Trump voters have, what matters are the actions he takes. The problem is that the last two administrations have massively expanded the executive power of the president and increased regulatory involvement in many areas of the economy. The Department of Defense has compiled a massive database and is spying on American citizens and foreign nationals without warrants. That data is shared with federal law enforcement agencies again without oversight. The president has the power to strip you of your rights and hold you indefinitely if you are investigated in connection to terrorism. He even apparently has the ability to kill you without a trial. Trump has promised further abuses of power, including deportations of millions of people that cannot be done without racial profiling and gross abuses of due process. 

Maybe Trump won’t seize executive authority or scoff at the Constitution at all, and 90% of his campaign promises will turn out to be hyperbole. But I doubt it. Maybe he’ll try to accomplish things and be thwarted by checks from the other branches of government and the Constitution like Madison imagined. I maintain that what matters is policy, and if his policies are not that bad, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But the fact that many are worried anyway indicates that we all understand to some extent or another that we have created an imperial presidency. It’s concerning that over 60 million people voted for a stated authoritarian who has advocated war crimes including killing of terrorists’ families; it’s also concerning that almost 61 million voted for someone who advocated a war in Libya without Congressional approval, who supported and continues to support warrantless spying on Americans, and condoned drone attacks that actually killed families of terrorists. The fact that 60 million votes is enough to make us fear for our rights means our troubles started a long time ago.

Yes, Trump’s presidency will likely be worse than anything we’ve ever seen, but as a state skeptic, it’s helpful when a politician just comes out and says how horrible they are rather than everyone pretending that the Obama and Bush imperial presidencies were normal and acceptable uses of executive authority. It makes the case against state power much more straightforward. Progressives need to realize is that Trump is worse only as a matter of degree; this blog post would have been written had Hillary won on Tuesday, it just wouldn’t have had a president-elect that cared so little about his reputation.


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Picture Credit: Replica Oval Office by George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

First They Came For The Data Analysts, And I Did Not Speak Out…

Data storage is cheap, and odds are good that any information you store today – if you care just a little about preserving it – can last well beyond your own lifespan. If you’re an intelligence agency and you’re collecting all of the surveillance information you possibly can, the easiest part of your job is probably siloing it so that you’ll have it for hundreds of years. If you’ve got any kind of budget for it, it’s easy to hold on to data practically indefinitely. So, if you’re the subject of surveillance by any of that sort of intelligence agency, all sorts of information collected about you may exist in intelligence silos for decades to come, probably long after you’ve forgotten it. That information exists, for practical purposes, effectively forever.

Suppose that your nation’s intelligence agency decides to collect information in bulk on every citizen it can, including you, and you judge that they are responsible and deserving of your trust, so you don’t mind that they are gathering this information about you and storing it indefinitely. Suppose that they actually are deserving of your trust, and the potentially massive amount of information that they collect and silo about you (and everyone else) is never abused, or even seen by a human analyst. Instead it sits in some massive underground data center, occasionally browsed through by algorithms combing for actual, specific security threats.

Trustworthy governments seem to be pretty stable governments, which is fortunate for people lucky enough to be governed by them. Year after year, there is a very high likelihood that the government will still be pretty great. But that likelihood can never be 100%, which is unfortunate because when you have a non-zero likelihood of something happening and you then compound it over a time scale like “effectively forever”, that puts you in uncomfortable territory. It’s hard to anticipate what sort of threats might exist five years from now, and harder to anticipate what might happen in 20. You have no idea what sort of world you’ll live in 40 years from now, but there are good odds that the extensive information siloed away today will still be around.

When I read Scott Alexander’s review of Manufacturing Consent, it was apparent that throughout the 20th century and clear into the present day, places that were stable at one point in time become unstable, and death squads followed shortly after. The Khmer Rouge killed about 25% of the population of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. 1975 is too close to the present to comfortably say that we exist in a modern world where we don’t have to worry about genocide and mass-murdering states.

We have no idea what the mass-murderers of the distant future will care about. Many of them will probably have fairly commonplace criteria for the groups they want to purge based on such things as race, religion, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, and so on. But some will devise criteria we can’t even begin to imagine. In the middle of the 19th century, only a tiny minority of people had even heard of communism, but a generation or so later that doctrine caused the death of millions of people in camps, wars, purges, and famines. Perhaps we’ve exhausted the space of ideologies that are willing to kill entire categories of people, and maybe we’ve identified all of the categories of people that you can identify and decide to purge.  But are you willing to bet money, much less your life, on the prediction that you won’t belong to some future class of deplorables?

In some of the purges of history, people had a chance to pretend not to be one of the undesirables. There’s no obvious sign that a Pear Party-affiliated death squad can use to identify a member of the Pineapple Party when the Pineapple Party government is toppled, so long as the Pineapplists know that they’re being targeted by Pear partisans and now is the time to scrape off their Pineapple Party ’88 bumper stickers. High-profile Pineapplists have no option but to flee the country, but the average member can try to lay low through the ensuing sectarian violence. That’s how it used to be, at least. But today people can scroll back 5 years in your Facebook profile and see that you were posting pro-Pineapple links then that you’ve since forgotten.

But open support of the Pineapple Party is too obvious. The undesirables of the future may have enough foresight to cover their tracks when it comes to clear-cut evidence like that. But, returning to the trustworthy intelligence agency we’ve mandated with finding people who want to harm us but also don’t want to be found, there are other ways to filter people. Machine learning and big data analysis are mixed bags. If you really, really need them to preemptively identify people who are about to commit atrocities, you’re probably going to be let down. It’s hard to sift through immense streams of data to find people who don’t want to be found. Not impossible, but machine learning isn’t a magic wand. That said, people are impressed with machine learning for a reason. Sometimes it pulls a surprising amount of signal out of what was previously only noise. And we are, today, the worst at discerning signal from noise that we will ever be. Progress in computational statistics could hit a wall next year, and then we can all temper our paranoia about targeted advertisements predicting our deepest, darkest secrets and embarrassing us with extremely specific ad pitches when our friends are looking over our shoulders. Maybe.

But perhaps it’s possible, if you’re patient and have gigantic piles of data lying around, to combine text analysis, social graph information, and decades-old Foursquare check-ins in order to identify closeted Pineapple Party members. And maybe it requires a small army of statisticians and programmers to do so, so you’re really not worried when the first paper is published that shows that researchers were able to identify supporters of Pineapplism with 65% accuracy. But then maybe another five years goes by and the work that previously took that small army of researchers months to do is now available as an R package that anyone with a laptop and knowledge of Statistics 101 can download and use. And that is the point where having gigantic piles of data siloed for a practically infinite amount of time becomes a scary liability.

The scenario where Pearists topple the government, swarm into the intelligence agency’s really big data center, and then know exactly where to go to round up undesirables might be fairly unlikely on its own. But there’s actually a much larger number of less-obvious opportunities for would-be Pearist mass-murderers. But maybe someone finds a decades-old flaw in a previously trusted security protocol and Pear-affiliated hackers breach the silo. Maybe they get information from the giant surveillance silo of a country that, now that we think of it, no one should have sold all of that surveillance software to. Maybe the intelligence agency has a Pearist mole. Maybe the whole intelligence apparatus is Pear-leaning the whole time. Maybe a sizeable majority of the country elects a Pearist demagogue that promises to round up Pineapplists and put them in camps. This sort of thing isn’t behind us.

The data silo is a threat to everyone. In the long run, we can’t anticipate who will have access to it. We can’t anticipate what new category will define the undesirables of the future. And those unknowing future undesirables don’t know what presently-inconspicuous evidence is being filed away in the silo now to resurface decades in the future. But the trend, as it exists, points to a future where large caches of personal data are a liability because future off-the-shelf machine learning tools may be as easy to use and overpowered relative to machine learning’s bleeding edge today as our smartphones are compared to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The wide availability of information on the open internet might itself be dangerous looked at through this lens. But if your public tweets are like dry leaves accumulating in your yard and increasing the risk of a dangerous data-fueled-pogrom wildfire, then mass surveillance silos are like giant rusty storage tanks next to your house that intelligence agencies are pumping full of high-octane petroleum as fast as they can.

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Picture credit: Wikimedia Foundation Servers by Wikipedia user Victor Grigas, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Election 2016: Little To Look Forward To

In November, The Economist wrote “If the Republican campaign is to return to normality, it will do so in South Carolina” due to the state’s ability to filter out the unserious candidates.  We are now a month out from the South Carolina primary, and a lot could still happen, but if you’re one of the people who think the government should do less spying on citizens, less intervening in the market, and less mindless spending on the DoD procurement program, you’re in a for bad time: Trump is at 49% chance of winning, Cruz 18%, and Rubio 13%.

Continue reading Election 2016: Little To Look Forward To

Reasons For Pessimism 4-8

4. TSA Moves From Your Underwear To Your Starbucks. Wired reports: “Not content with fondling your privates and banning liquids from entering the concourse, the Transportation Security Administration is apparently now also screening liquids bought by passengers after they’ve already gone through regular security screening…” Because, you know, if you’re putting something you bought from the airport into your own mouth, there’s a chance you might have added explosives to it. Supposedly it’s nothing new, just “part of random screening techniques” that have been going on since 2007. Sounds to me like yet another example of overbroad TSA policies resulting in ridiculous real-world applications that protect against nothing while further expanding the citizen’s right to be harassed.
Silver Lining? The more coverage this stuff gets -> the greater demand for change -> the greater the chance of change.

Continue reading Reasons For Pessimism 4-8