Flynn and the Deep State

I was listening to the most recent Reason podcast with Nick Gillespie interviewing Eli Lake about Michael Flynn’s ouster as National Security Adviser. I had a couple thoughts on it.

  1. Flynn talking to the Russians about sanctions as lame duck Obama imposes sanctions. This just isn’t that scary to me. Maybe it’s a violation of the Logan Act, but maybe that’s another reason the Logan Act is dumb, not a reason Flynn is bad.
  2. Flynn lying to Mike Pence about what was discussed. This seems pretty bad. However, they must have had transcripts of the conversations, so who knew what and when? Did the President know they had discussed sanctions when Pence told the press they had not? Did Pence know? Flynn took the fall, but he may not have been the real problem. Certainly at some point the President found out and waited until the story was public before sacking Flynn.
  3. Intelligence agencies using information they gathered while spying to conduct political activity and attack political enemies. Really, really bad. This is basically the worst case scenario for how mass surveillance can be misused. Yes, in this case, the spying was done on a line most people would know is tapped, but these intelligence agencies are operating without oversight. Sure, it was nice of them to leak information that Trump was keeping from the public, but what’s to stop them from leaking information on the personal activities of political enemies of the FBI, NSA, and others? Was their interest in the public good or their own political objectives? It seems that a better system where whistleblowers could reach out to (as an example) members of Congress without retribution would be much better, assuring only information relevant to public discourse is released.

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Links 2017-1-12

As we approach the time when free trade is the heretical advice rather than the obvious logical one, it’s time to brush up on our free trade arguments. Here’s an interesting one: would you ban new technology to save the jobs tied to the technology it replaces? Would you ban light bulbs to save candlemakers? Cars to save horsebreeders? It’s a ridiculous proposition to freeze the economy at a certain point in time. Well, there’s no economic difference between new technology and free trade. In fact, we can treat international trade as a fancy machine where we send corn away on a boat and the machine turns the corn into cars.  

And speaking of free trade, this is the economic modeling for why a tariff is unequivocally inefficient. One of the impacts of a tariff, by the way, is an increase in the market price of a good. Anyone saying that a tariff won’t have negative effects on consumers is just plain wrong.

The excellent open source encrypted messaging app Signal is so useful, it has to avoid having its application servers blacklisted by oppressive regimes. It uses a workaround of having encrypted connections through content delivery network, in this case, Google itself. Moxie Marlinspike, the creater of Signal says “Eventually disabling Signal starts to resemble disabling the internet.”

One of the biggest problems with Trump I pointed out last year was the total unknown of his policies. He keeps changing his mind on almost every issue, and when he does speak, he wanders aimlessly, using simplified language that is more blunt and less precise. Fitting right into this pattern, Trump has taken to Twitter for much of his communication, even since winning the election. Twitter is a short and imprecise tool for communication, and this New York Times article shows just how much uncertainty Trump creates with his tweets.

Related: Bill Perry is terrified of increased nuclear proliferation. The article is a little alarmist, but it’s worth remembering that nuclear war was a real threat just 30 years ago. It should not be taken for granted that nuclear war will never occur, and Trump seems the most likely of the post-Soviet presidents to get involved in a confrontation with a major nuclear power.

Scott Alexander reveals his ideal cabinet (and top advisers) if he were president. It’s not only remarkably better than Trump’s, it’s probably better than any cabinet and appointees we’ve ever had (Bernie Sanders notwithstanding). Highlights include: Alex Tabarrok as head of the FDA, Scott Sumner as Chairman of the Fed, Charles Murray as welfar czar, Peter Thiel as Commerce Secretary, and Elon Musk as both Secretary of Transportation and Energy.

Speaking of cabinets, George Will details just how out of touch soon-to-be-Attorney General Jeff Sessions is, recounting his 2015 defense of unlimited civil asset forfeiture, a procedure by which the government takes cash and property from civilians who have been convicted of no crime and therefore have no recourse or due process protections. Don’t buy into the story that all of Trump’s appointees are horrific and terrifying; there is a gradient of his cabinet appointments depending on their authoritarian tendencies and the importance of their department, and unfortunately Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is by far the most concerning.

Missed this earlier last year, and worth keeping in mind as BuzzFeed gets hammered this week over their publishing of an unverified dossier: apparently the FBI already has daily aerial surveillance flights over American cities. These seem to be for general investigative use, not vital national security issues: “But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.” 

Speaking of BuzzFeed and the crisis of “fake news”, which itself may not even be anything compared the crisis of facts and truth itself, Nathan Robinson has an excellent take on the matter (very long read). With the lack of facts in the election, the media and Trump’s critics generally have to be twice as careful to rebuild trust in the very concept that objective truth exists and can be discussed in a political context.

Government regulations have hidden, unexpected costs. These regulations hurt people regardless of their political affiliations, as a Berkeley professor found out when trying to evict a tenant that refused to pay rent. California’s rather insane tenant laws mean that serial rent-cheaters can go from place to place staying rent free for months at a time.

I’ve often thought about the right ordering of presidents from best to worst, taking into account a libertarian, liberty-promoting approach. One difficulty is the non-comparability of presidents separated by centuries. However, this blog post from 2009 actually does a nice job of scoring the presidencies. I don’t agree with each one, but it’s a rough categorization that makes sense. It even gave me an additional appreciation for Ulysses Grant, who I figured was mostly president by the luck of being the general in charge when his army won the Civil War. Other highlights include William Henry Harrison scoring 11th, thus beating over three quarters of the competition despite only being in office for a month. I feel like I could have found more worse things on Andrew Jackson, and in general I feel like I agreed with the list more the closer I got the end.

Jeffrey Tucker at FEE has a nice article about the difference between spreading ideas and actual economic production of goods. His thesis is that we have much less control over the developing of ideas than we do of developing normal rivalrous goods. And since libertarians are pretty solid at grasping the idea that the production of goods cannot be controlled from the top down, we should also acknowledge that top-down approaches to developing ideas are even more preposterous, especially in the digital age of decentralized information. I’ve thought about this a fair amount considering I like I blogging but I’m well aware few people read this blog. The simplest way to restate Tucker’s point is that you have to have good ideas more than good distribution. I don’t know if that’s an accurate take, but certainly good ideas are the single most important part of spreading your ideas.

There’s a saying on the internet that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch”. The 2016 election is excellent demonstration of just how poorly democracy can fail, but what our all alternatives. How about Futarchy? This is Robin Hanson’s idea to improve public policy: “In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare.” Let’s hold a referendum on it; those seem to work out.

Bitcoin has been on the rise in recent months. So have other cryptocurrencies. But rather than focus just the price of the cryptocurrency, why not look at the total market valuation of those currencies? Sure, you might have heard that Bitcoin was up to $1000 again recently, but did you know that its total market cap is ~$13 billion? At the very peak of the Bitcoin bubble in 2013, all Bitcoins together were valued around $13 billion, but only for a matter of days. This time Bitcoin has kept that valuation for over 3 weeks. With more markets and availability, Bitcoin is becoming a real alternative for people whose national currencies have failed them. 

Postlibertarian throwback: When Capitalism and the Internet Make Food Better. A reminder that the despite the ongoing horrors of government we are witnessing, the market is still busy providing better products and cheaper prices.

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Legal Innovation: Warrant Canaries

I recently came across a fascinating legal concept called warrant canaries. I’m going to cover the idea briefly, but if you want to know more about them in detail, I highly recommend this Warrant Canary FAQ at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The context is that many online services based in the United States can be compelled by the FBI to give whatever information they have to law enforcement through National Security Letters. Those documents often gag the companies from informing their customers they are being spied on, even if the service is being provided specifically so that users can get encrypted, private communication. It’s hard to pin down the exact constitutionality of NSLs. They were ruled unconstitutional in 2013, but it looks like the case was remanded in 2015 after the passage of the USA Freedom Act. Given the government’s continued efforts to obtain information regardless of constitutionality and limitations placed on them by Congress, it would be nice if we had some way to communicate if a service was under duress from the government.

The usefulness of warrant canaries (I’ll get to what they are in a moment) is based on two legal concepts: (1) it’s not illegal to inform anyone of a warrant you haven’t been served, and (2) the state cannot compel false speech.

The first statement is common sense, since you can’t be curtailed from simply stating something hasn’t happened yet.  The second is a bit more subtle; a stronger statement is that the state cannot compel speech at all, but that’s not always true. The state can sometimes compel commercial speech to inform consumers of information so they can make accurate decisions. The EFF elaborates that “…the cases on compelled speech have tended to rely on truth as a minimum requirement”.

This is essential because it allows companies with encryption products to convey highly relevant information to their customers. Companies can publicly post a message indicating they have not received a warrant because of the first legal concept, and they can immediately take down their public message when they do receive a warrant because the state cannot compel false speech.

To ensure the authenticity of the message stating that the given company has not been subject to a NSL, many go an extra step and sign their messages with a PGP key (example here).

Of course, a foolproof way to ensure no data is lost is to simply make all data encrypted, like Apple has with the iPhone, ProtonMail does for email, and everyone who has ever sent encrypted emails has been doing since the 90s. But I still like this idea, because individuals who run encryption services should not be forced to be government puppets, like the FBI hoped to do to Ledar Levison.

The weakness is that we don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s possible the government already has a new Secret National Security Letter which it uses to compel companies to lie under some made up interpretation of an arcane piece of legislation. The only real security is end-to-end encrypted communication or being Hillary Clinton.


Banning Unbreakable Smartphone Encryption is Stupid

At least two states, New York and California, have introduced legislation that would ban smartphones sold in those states if those smartphones could not be searched under request from law enforcement.  This would likely mean no phones would be sold with unbreakable encryption, although I suppose Apple or Samsung could manufacture two types of phones and then just sell all the encrypted ones from New Hampshire or something. These bills are still somewhat controversial, and as it has gotten press coverage, there has been a House bill introduced that would prevent state legislation like those bills introduced in New York and California. Continue reading Banning Unbreakable Smartphone Encryption is Stupid