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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The Obama Presidency Was Bad

We’re already caught up in how terrible the Trump presidency is, but over the next four years, it will be important to remember just how bad the Obama presidency was. When overcome with frustration at the current administration, I would urge readers to come back to this post and remember that the last president was also quite terrible. In his farewell speech, Obama tried to make the argument for his presidency’s accomplishments, but many of them were simply court cases that were decided while he was president, or decisions that were nice but had little real policy impact.

There have been plenty of reflections on the Obama presidency, but I think a high level overview of everything Obama did would put in perspective just how awful he’s been, especially as we experience the incompetency and horrible policy decisions of the current administration. I’ve done this by letter grades A through F.

The A’s

Iran Nuclear Deal

So…there was only one thing I could give an A to. Even this A is very hesitant. We did give up a lot for this deal–the Iranian government is pretty awful and by unfreezing their assets, they got access to very large amounts of money. However, I don’t think there was much else to do. Unless Republicans actually wanted to declare war on Iran, this seems like the only way to stop them from developing a nuclear weapon.  Iran’s nuclear program will be prohibited from refining any uranium for 15 years, and this was accomplished without any military intervention whatsoever. That’s pretty excellent. Moreover, the average citizens of Iran matter as well and it is somewhat unfair to punish them with high inflation and economic hardship because their authoritarian government is irresponsible.  Cato expands more here.

The B’s


One of the most important accomplishments is that Obama’s administration worked to pass several free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. He also tried to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Free Trade Area, although he could have really pushed harder on these initiatives. Obama didn’t do a great job making the case for free trade and his signature deal was ultimately a failure; honestly, a B is generous here, and is more of a function of the importance of free trade more so than Obama’s actual impact. Also worth noting is that his rhetoric while campaigning was pretty vigorously anti-trade, so he should be commended for changing his mind on this.

Gay Rights

Obama ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but was still on the record as anti-gay marriage as late as 2012. Sure, public opinion on gay marriage shifted rapidly, but Obama basically waited until it was 50-50 to switch to the right side on this; the Libertarian Party has been on board with gay marriage since the 70s. He should also be applauded for essentially not getting in the way of the court case. I know that’s a low bar, but he could have fought it and tried to keep the DOMA. The other issue is that while this is excellent, the impact of gay marriage legalization is somewhat limited to people who can take advantage of it.


The Cuban embargo was imposed over 50 years ago in a bid to quickly end Castro’s dictatorship on the island. It failed. 25 years after the Soviet Union had disintegrated, a president finally spent some political capital to remove an outdated institution. Trade embargoes harm populations, and trade embargoes on a country that has been crushed by horrific socialist economic policies are even more harmful. The president cannot remove the embargo, but everything he can do without Congress, Obama has done on this issue. Trade can bring countries together, and Obama took steps to build those bridges. If he had actually gotten the embargo lifted, this would be an A.

The C’s

Marijuana Legalization

And that’s it for the entirely positive! Marijuana’s big progress had basically nothing to do with Obama, and Obama actually started out fighting it, performing more federal raids on state legal marijuana dispensaries in his first term than Bush. Eventually the administration did make the decision not to continue attempts to enforce marijuana laws with federal police forces. While kind of obvious and not very impressive, this may turn out to be something we remember fondly during the long night of the Jeff Sessions era.


As an incredibly brief overview, the ACA is flawed because it does nothing to address the fundamental problem with the healthcare system: a lack of market forces.  The laws of supply and demand create incentives for lower cost and higher quality care. Plastic surgery and lasik are not covered by insurance and thus must compete on price and quality and over time these areas have seen remarkable improvement with prices remaining the same or even dropping.

Our insurance system insulates both consumers and providers of healthcare from the market prices; consumers don’t pay for care, they don’t pay different prices at different places, and they often don’t even buy the insurance that does pay for care. Instead their employers pay for the thing that pays for their healthcare. And sometimes, if you go to a hospital, the insurance doesn’t really pay for care either, it pays the hospital in obfuscated and arcane ways, which in turn provides the doctors and actual equipment needed to provide care. It’s a complete mess.

The ACA did do some nice things like allow people with pre-existing conditions and people who didn’t get their healthcare through their employees and poor people to get health insurance. This is great, and any healthcare reform should strive to do that. However, by not addressing the price issue, they doomed these reforms. Things have sputtered along, but healthcare costs have kept rising, and now insurers are stuck with a disproportionate amount of sick people, needing to raise prices, which only drives away more healthy people. The death spiral was a predictable consequence (and indeed I did predict this in 2010 in a blog attached to my real name and thus will not be linking to here). Obamacare was not a poorly intended bill, but it was an incredible missed opportunity to actually fix the healthcare system. The only reason I didn’t give it a lower grade was because the system was so bad already, it’s hard to argue it was made that much worse.

Global Warming

Obama took steps to reduce climate change. Even if you’re not concerned about the most dire predictions of global warming, that’s probably a net benefit. He also was able to get China to sign onto the Paris Agreement. While not having legal punishments for countries who break their promises, it’s a solid negotiating achievement. However, Obama also implemented, largely by executive order, regulations on coal plants in the US that will have very little impact on carbon emissions. It’s also not at all market oriented, and therefore not particularly economically efficient. Additionally, in his first year in office, Obama had a chance to try and pass a more economically efficient carbon credit trading bill. Assuming climate change is as dire a threat as many say it is (I’m admittedly less worried), it seems to be a poor decision to spend political capital on other bills that did pass, especially something that was as flawed as Obamacare.

The Economy

The employment rate is lower than it has been in a long time, but the problem is this graph. Labor force participation has plummeted from 65% in the depths of the recession to around 62% now. The last time it was this low was before 1980. Since the current labor is around 160 million people, and we are at 62% participation, that means the cohort of the working age population is about 258 million. In 2009, unemployment was around 9%. With a labor force of 155 million people, that’s almost 14 million unemployed. Today with an unemployment rate of 4.7%, that’s only 7.5 million unemployed. However, looking at the people not in the labor force in 2009 there were 83.5 million not working but not unemployed. In 2017, there are 98 million not working but not unemployed. so unemployment dropped by almost 7 million, yet more than twice that many more people were staying out of the labor force entirely. The economy isn’t in free fall, but it’s not knocking it out of the park either, and this is 8 years after the recession. This isn’t entirely Obama’s fault, as the Federal Reserve is much more responsible for economic success overall, but the things Obama did have control over were abject failures: fiscal restraint, entitlement reform, and deregulation.


Obama’s legacy on immigration liberalization is mixed. Unfortunately, as this is one of the more important issues in improving the world, a mixed record is disappointing. Obama deported more people than George Bush and he failed to pass any sort of comprehensive reform bill. Obviously, he couldn’t pass bills on everything, but this would have been a pretty important area to do so. Obama did however create an executive order delaying deportations for millions of illegal immigrants. This was a bit odd constitutionally, but with so many illegal immigrants in the United States, it would be impossible to deport them all anyway. Obama’s order simply prioritizes some over others, protecting children and parents of American citizens. This was certainly a good policy, but unfortunately Obama’s legacy in this area should have been so much better.

The D’s

Endless Wars

Obama is the first president to be at war for every day of his presidency. From Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya and Syria, to undeclared wars and bombings in Yemen and Pakistan, we have entered a new era of endless war. Libya is specifically horrifying: Obama chose to involve the American military in Libya unilaterally. He explicitly did not get authorization from Congress, and in fact Congress explicitly voted against a resolution to authorize his military involvement after the fact. That is a terrifying precedent to give Donald Trump.

The only reason this category is not an F is because of Obama’s continued reluctance to expand the US involvement in Syria.  Of course, he did this in the worst possible way, by drawing a line in the sand and then backing down from it but it’s undeniable that a larger American role in Syria would have involved the US in one of the largest, bloodiest civil wars of the last decade. Of course, we have not even touched the fact that American troops are in Iraq 14 years after the invasion, and many US contractors remain in Afghanistan 16 years after that invasion. Obama has still institutionalized war in way never before seen.

The F’s


I mean wow. How did we get here? If you want all the citatations, this Mashable article is a good start. The United States government engages in broad sweeps of Americans’ phone records through unconstitutional general warrants issued via a secret court that had no defense team, no oversight, and has only rejected a handful of warrants in its entire history. The NSA also had a program for collecting data on foreigners and Americans from major technology companies, as well as a massive database storing all of that information for later search. Every available method of siphoning data is apparently being used.  The NSA also invested heavily in ways to break internet encryption standards. They even paid $10 million to RSA to get them to set their default encryption algorithm to one that was fundamentally broken in one of their products. Most impressively, it turns out that the big phone record collection the NSA was conducting in total secret, that had no oversight and Senators couldn’t even talk about, it’s illegal according to a federal appellate court.

It was such a disaster that Congress eventually tried to pass a reform bill to fix Section 215 of the Patriot Act which is what the courts cited as the justification for these general warrants. Yet in the end, that bill was watered down to the point of uselessness, with Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, and Rand Paul all voting against it due to its lack of real power. In fact, the bill extended the Patriot Act for several years. Obama’s legacy in this area is a total disaster, and he leaves an out of control intelligence agency with no oversight in the hands of a petty authoritarian. The NSA (and all agencies they share information with) knows intimate details about all of our lives, our communication patterns, and our digital existences. As we’ve written before, this is not good.


Reason does a good job tearing the Obama administration apart over the “most transparent administration in history” line. Again, this area is such a disaster there are too many things to cover. We can start by discussing how just a month or two prior to the Edward Snowden revealing everything we talked about in the last section, DNI Clapper blatantly lied to a Senate committee about the government’s spying capability. Obama himself has hardly given any interviews to the press. His administration has had more than double the Espionage Act charges against whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Which is especially concerning since none of these were acts of espionage! These were legitimate problems that were hidden from view from the public, brought to light by people doing the right thing. But the secrecy was pervasive throughout the administration; regular employees were banned from talking with reporters, a record number of FOIA requests were denied and at least 1 in 3 were denied improperly (which was only ever found out if challenged), and, of course, the government had a secret extrajudicial kill list.

Drone Strikes

Conor Friedersdorf writes that in Obama’s first year in office, his administration conducted over 100 drone strikes…in Pakistan. Quick recap: Congress voted for an Authorization of the Use of Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 Attacks, which allowed the government to invade Afghanistan. Congress also voted to go into Iraq. Pakistan is not one of these countries, yet apparently Obama was carrying out an entire proxy war via drone strikes. In 2010, those strikes only intensified, yet it was worse than that; to cloud the truth, the Obama administration counted all military age males in the vicinity of these strikes as combatants, regardless if they were civilians or not. There were eventually reforms to this process, and the number of civilian casualties per strikes started to go down, but this is but the smallest of victories. In waging these undeclared wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the Obama administration concocted an absurd “legal” process to target specific individuals without a trial, including American citizens. We are talking about a logistically planned and funded protocol for murdering American citizens overseen only by the President. This process eventually ended up killing a civilian by accident, a 16 year old American. This is unjustifiable. No one was ever held accountable for these lawless actions, and the president retains power to murder at will, which he has promptly done, murdering the deceased teenager’s sister this past week. Someone get this guy a Nobel Peace Prize.

Executive Power

This section condenses much of what Gene Healy says in his excellent piece “Goodbye, Obama”. The powers the Obama administration seized and expanded are vast. While initially running against “dumb wars” and unauthorized wars, Obama became the first president to be at war for every day of his presidency. He undertook drone strikes in countries where he had authorization to be in, he even undertook an entire military action in Libya when Congress had expressly voted against supporting it. He continued to use the 2001 AUMF six years after the death of Osama bin Laden and against a group (the Islamic State) that essentially didn’t exist on 9/11. And the Trump administration has continued this justification. His drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, and even American citizens. He has created a secret kill list with no oversight from courts or Congress. He has ascended to new heights of secrecy and prosecution of whistleblowers, and he has thwarted attempts at transparency at every turn. Without public knowledge, the ultimate oversight of the democratic process is destroyed as well. And none of this is even touching areas outside national security where Obama also took unilateral presidential orders to new and creative areas. These include instituting new immigration law by executive order when it was bogged down in Congress, creating new overtime labor rules, adding new environmental regulations on power plants, national school curriculum requirements, and even unilaterally amending Obamacare. Healy writes “More than any recent president, Obama has embraced and, to some extent, legitimized the anti-constitutional theory that congressional inaction is a legitimate source of presidential power.”

Obama’s legacy is the Imperial Presidency. Simply by occupying the same office as Obama, Donald Trump inherits vast powers, legislative, military, and judicial. Americans’ private information is available, their lives at risk without the need for due process, the very laws of the country can be changed via the presidential pen. Barack Obama has accomplished much during his presidency, but most of his important projects have ended in utter disaster, and the manner of their attempted accomplishment has greatly imperiled the separation of powers and constitutional restraint. While itg is quite possible, even likely, that the Trump presidency will be worse still, we cannot forget the incredible cost and horrific events of the Obama legacy.

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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.

Against Hillary: Government Power and Criminal Justice

This is the fifth and final post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Government Power and Criminal Justice

I could go on critiquing many more topics where progressives and libertarians disagree. I’m not sure that would help, so I’ll conclude with this broad section on government power. The fundamental problem we should all have with Hillary Clinton is that she trusts the government to fix every problem we face. But the government has no competition, is slow to change, is slow to respond, and wields a massive police state. Moreover, she also seems to believe government officials should always be trusted to act in the public interest. This seems to govern her position on her mishandling classified information, on her foreign interventions and wars, on healthcare, on government spending, on our right to know that our government is spying on us, and even on the right for people to publish books and movies critical of candidates near elections.

Let’s go back to some points I made in my Against Trump post. As noted by Conor Friedersdorf, the powers of the president apparently include ordering the execution of American citizens with drone strikes (something it seems Hillary Clinton implicitly approved of), detaining Americans suspected of terrorism indefinitely, and spying on millions of Americans with unconstitutional general warrants. Quoting me from the Trump piece:

The enormous amount of statutes on the books means it’s almost certain average people break laws every single day, and so these law enforcement agencies can always find probable cause to arrest you. Then they can stack up charges to force a plea deal, all at the discretion of prosecutors.  As it stands right now, there’s a strong case that the criminal justice system is biased, slow, and unfair, and that it deprives individuals of their rights. But now imagine Trump in charge of the DEA, FBI, intelligence services, and the military.

I later compare Trump to Nixon. My intention was to show that bad presidents have existed and they did terrible damage. Of course, Nixon and Trump in reality have little in common; Nixon was an unlikeable, calculating, politically successful military interventionist who also expanded the size and scope of the regulatory state and federal government while using his power to cover up his aggressive use of the state to fight his political rivals. In other words, he was literally Hillary Clinton in 2016. Imagine putting Richard Nixon in charge of the government today where he would have access to unprecendented surveillance, secret courts, and undeclared wars. This is what we face in a Clinton presidency.

One of the biggest issues in 2016 has been the way police interact with citizens, especially people of color. The trust Hillary Clinton has in the state is simply incompatible with the reality of police abuses. Libertarians, on the other hand, have been talking about police abuse for quite some time. Some of those ideas have been adopted by Clinton including an opposition to mandatory minimums, a prioritization of violent crime over drug crimes, and better police accountability. But Clinton’s positions are mixed at best: harsher sentences in the 90s that helped create the massive prison population we see today weren’t just introduced for drug possession, but also firearm possession. Clinton hasn’t discussed liberalization of firearm ownership, and in fact has called for the suspension of 2nd amendment rights for people placed on the unaccountable and discriminatory terrorist watch list. Her support for the Patriot Act and NSA spying doesn’t really imply a worldview that wants to reduce the police powers of the state. Indeed, her stances in all sorts of areas from undeclared wars to videogames reflect a fundamental belief in civilian deference to state power. Yet as countless examples have shown, including Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and more, deferring to a powerful police state allows harm to come to innocents.

The more power the state has, the more likely there will be confrontations between actors of the state and citizens, and confrontations where there is a power imbalance leads to abuses. Even if we could end racism today, we would not be solving the problem; police that still abuse their power, just against people of all races equally are still immoral. Whether it’s the justice system broadly, government surveillance, regulatory powers, or foreign interventions Hillary Clinton does not offer a fundamental change from simply trusting in the state to fix the problem. Our military has been involved in trillion dollar middle eastern wars over the past 16 years. The justice system is so broken that prosecutors can force 95% of defendants to accept plea bargains. We are outraged at the power the police are wielding without oversight. Yet we are making the problem worse by putting a reincarnation of Richard Nixon into the White House, after she has already brazenly broken the law and gotten away with it. This is simply the wrong answer.

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Picture Credit: Public Domain Image, from National Archives and Records Administration.

Against Hillary: Foreign Policy and Trade

This is the second post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Foreign Policy

Media coverage might make you think that Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s weakest point in comparison to Hillary Clinton is foreign policy. On the contrary, foreign policy is by far the the most important policy reason voters should reject Hillary Clinton, especially in favor of Johnson. News stories might seem to indicate that Johnson knows nothing about foreign policy, but in fact he has an excellent nuanced approach to foreign affairs. Libertarians have a reputation for isolationism, and indeed an important part of Johnson’s policy is a reduction in American military involvement in the middle east. But he is still a proponent of American diplomacy and defending American obligations in NATO. He’s also the only proponent of free trade in this election, a policy which has systematically broken down geopolitical opponents by integrating their economies into global markets and intertwining their economic success with ours. Let’s contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s policies.

The American consensus on the 2003 Iraq War is certainly negative, and I’d go as far as to say that most agree it was a mistake, especially on the left. Hillary Clinton voted to support that war, but so did many politicians on both sides of the aisle (including 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry). Of course, even some blame for a war that had several hundred thousand deaths of civilians and combatants is pretty awful. 4,507 Americans died in the Iraq war. This is significantly higher than the amount of people who died in the September 11th attacks. These are real people that likely would be alive today if not for the actions of American politicians. Yes, Hillary Clinton was not the only person who voted for this war, so perhaps she is only responsible for a fraction of this mistake. But is it that great to be responsible for the deaths of only 100 Americans who died for a mistake? What about the thousands of Iraqi Security Forces who died in the insurgency? What about the estimated five million Iraqi orphans caused by the war, or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died?

In 2004, Hillary said she had no regrets her Iraq War vote. In 2008, she didn’t want to be flip-flopping and so did not apologize, but she nonetheless lost the nomination to Obama, with the Iraq War support being one of several factors. In her 2014 book, she finally admitted that she regrets her vote backing the Iraq War. Yet, as The Atlantic points out, she was quite sincere in her vote in 2002; this was not simply a political ploy to look strong on national security. And if indeed she has had a change of heart, one would think she would treat future policy decisions differently.

In 2011 as Secretary of State, she faced another policy decision in Libya…and again decided to push for intervention. During a Democratic primary debate a year ago when asked about the intervention, Hillary Clinton began her defense of American involvement in Libya by labeling it as “smart power at its best”. Connor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic harshly criticized Clinton’s full answer stating that her upbeat portrayal of Libya was:

…about as misleading as summarizing the Iraq War by saying that the Iraqis had a terrible leader; they had a free election after the war; and they voted for moderates. It elides massive suffering and security threats that have occurred in postwar Libya.

Also worth noting, as Friedersdorf points out, this war was not declared, and not only violated the War Powers Resolution, but went against the expressed opposition of a Libya intervention Congressional vote. Moreover, the New York Times discusses in-depth how Obama was hesitant to get involved in Libya until Clinton convinced him it was a worthwhile endeavor. This is her war, and it left Libya a failed state.

Clinton’s support of military interventions in the middle east should be very concerning to everyone. Essentially all military interventions she has supported in the middle east have been failures: Libya is most prominently hers; she voted to go to war in Iraq which was a foreign policy disaster; she also supported the Afghanistan surge in 2009 and drone bombing in Pakistan during the first Obama term. Seven years after the surge in Afghanistan, there are still thousands of American soldiers and several times that many contractors in Afghanistan today. The Pakistan drone strikes have been severely criticized, with estimates of civilian casualties varying between 250 to over 900 civilians killed.

Of course, the US hasn’t really had a successful military intervention in the middle east since the Gulf War. Yet Hillary Clinton has continued to favor aggressive hawkish interventions. Her widely touted “experience” during her husband’s administration, as a Senator, and as a member of the Obama administration seems to have created systemic bias towards intervention in her approach to foreign affairs. In the Times piece, Clinton adviser Anne-Marie Slaughter states:

“Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be ‘caught trying.’ In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all.”

This may sound noble, but it should disturb anyone considering voting for Clinton. The implication that “trying” is always better than “not trying” ignores the possibility that American policy could ever accidentally cause bad outcomes. This isn’t just possible, it’s quite likely, as demonstrated specifically by Iraq and Libya. Now Clinton is proposing additional intervention in Syria, beyond what the Obama administration has pursued. This includes no-fly zones and troops on the ground to create safe zones for refugees.

You might say that Syria is different from Iraq in that the situation literally couldn’t be worse, so perhaps intervention only risks improving one of the bloodiest wars in the last decade. Yet no-fly zones would demand a confrontation with Russia (they are the ones flying the planes) and would require the US to shoot down Russian military aircraft. This is escalation, and thus it’s quite easy for imprecise or incorrect policy to actually make Syria become even worse under Clinton’s policy. A Johnson/libertarian hands-off approach has inherently less risk because there would be no soldiers involved and little to no risk of escalation with Russia. Johnson has specifically advocated working with Russia, which is also basically the policy the Obama administration is taking. Nonetheless, we should acknowledge this approach has done little to end the war in Syria.

But if anything, that’s another point to Johnson: if Clinton’s ideas are so great, it seems that the Obama administration would have already implemented them and succeeded. The implication then is that Clinton differs significantly from Obama in Syria policy. Specifically, she is willing to commit more than pure air support. This sounds suspiciously like a traditional middle eastern military intervention championed by neoconservatives/right-wing hawks. Johnson’s Syria policy is suspiciously similar to Obama’s. So the question is why would Democrats and progressives side with Clinton when the Clinton vs Johnson policies are really right-wing vs Obama Syria policies. It seems siding with Clinton over Johnson in this area means abandoning the left’s positions, including that of the sitting Democratic president.

Moreover, for Clinton’s policies to succeed, she would need to win a middle eastern conflict by building a coalition among international actors who are geopolitically opposed. This war would need to be won against both a strong dictator and a large insurgency, the latter being something the United States has failed at essentially every time in the middle east. These plans are unreasonable, unprecedented, and unlikely to work.

Voting to approve of Clinton’s continual push for war and intervention is to agree not to hold her responsible for her repeated foreign policy mistakes which have lost countless lives. It’s to agree that we can afford to spend another several hundred billion dollars on another middle east intervention. It’s to put faith in a person who has learned nothing, who is hoping her intentions in solving the Syrian conflict will overcome the reality of the middle eastern politics.

Free Trade

Trade is next due to its role in the dynamics of geopolitical relationships. Again, despite the consensus that foreign relations is Hillary’s strong point, this is the second foreign policy area where she is on the wrong side. When it comes to trade, economists are in astounding agreement that free trade is a good thing. The benefits of freer international markets are clear and the results are all around us; today we have global supply chains that reduce the cost and increase the availability of goods of all types. Integration of developing economies has raised the productivity of the global poor and allowed for sustainable, incentivized growth to pull literally billions out of poverty, a feat which government and charities have never come close. The burden is on free trade opponents to explain their position, and in this election, those opponents are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Gary Johnson is the only candidate running this year who is on the right side of perhaps the most important issue when it comes to the degree and number of people helped.

Hillary Clinton may say in private that she supports free trade, but at best then we are hoping she is lying publicly. Unfortunately, whatever political calculations she is making may not necessarily change after election day. At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest free trade will not be a top priority of the Clinton administration given she is running as far as possible from the TPP. As an aside, the TPP itself has many non-free trade components, including extensive increases in intellectual property protections. But our president should be someone who makes the case to the American people and the to the world of the benefits of trade, cooperation, and commercial interaction (I can’t believe I’m defending Obama). The current presidential administration has created many bad policies, but in foreign affairs, both in war and trade, Clinton is somehow huge steps backwards from where we are today.

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Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0

Against Hillary: The Rule of Law

This post is the latest in a series this year covering the 2016 election. In May, I took a look at all candidates that had run for the Democratic and Republican nominations and noted that most were flawed. I restricted much of my analysis to the candidates’ political electability, regardless of my agreement with their ideology. Obviously much of that post focused on the failures of the Republican Party to nominate someone better than Trump, but I noted that already Hillary Clinton was demonstrating some serious popularity issues. In fact, I’m pretty sure her vulnerability (and high likelihood of being the Democratic nominee) was the primary reason for so many Republicans entering the race. That notion has proven correct as the Huffington Post favorability ratings put Hillary at 43% favorable / 54% unfavorable. In comparison at this time of the race, Mitt Romney was about 46% favorable / 48% unfavorable and Obama was 45% favorable / 50% unfavorable. Against an average Republican presidential candidate, I’d bet she’d be losing badly.

But she’s not facing an average Republican, she’s facing Donald Trump, perhaps the worst major party candidate in memory. I’ve gone into extensive detail about the problems with a Trump presidency, and I’ve recommended voting for Gary Johnson (twice), or any third party, if the election isn’t close or you don’t live in a swing state. I define swing state very narrowly as states with a serious chance of their outcome determining the outcome of the election. Indeed, with only a week to go, betting markets have Clinton at over 70% chance to win the election.

However, even if my mathematical arguments make sense to you, if you are a self-identified Democrat or progressive, you might still prefer voting for a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton rather than a third party just because she seems to fit your ideology better; sure, your vote likely won’t count, but perhaps you just don’t see much appeal in the third parties anyway so you might as well state your preference for a candidate you like. This post, at the very least, will lay out the case for why a Clinton presidency would be mediocre, and at best this post will persuade you to vote for Gary Johnson over Hillary Clinton. Again, this implies that there is no real chance of having a decisive vote.

Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th president of the United States no matter how you vote. While it is nice that Donald Trump will not be president, we must remember that Hillary Clinton’s victory is simply the final act in an election where our political system utterly failed.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Against Trump first was that there are so many faults you can have with Trump without encountering any Fundamental Ideological Disagreements. By Fundamental Ideological Disagreements, I mean that sometimes you encounter people where you don’t have anything close to the same goals in mind due to virtually irreconcilable ideology. A classic example of irreconcilable differences is abortion: some people believe that life begins at conception, and some people believe a fetus only gains rights once it is viable outside the womb. You can’t really get to one place from the other since each has fundamental ideological assumptions about whether an unborn fetus has rights.

Fundamental Ideological Disagreements are part of the reason I favor consequentialism; if we can at least agree on what our goals are, now it’s theoretically just an empirical disagreement on the best way to get there. With Trump, there’s a lot to dislike without considering ideology: he trolls, he flip-flops, he’s unintelligent and incompetent. Regardless of whether we agree with what a perfectly competent Trump would do, it’s apparent, through stupidity or flip-flopping, many of his promises are empty.

Hillary Clinton is not nearly as unknown. She’s done her own share of flip-flopping, but we generally know where she stands on big issues: she favors American military intervention, she favors government involvement and expansion of an expensive welfare state, she favors a regulated economy with higher taxes on the wealthy, and she favors curtailing individual liberties in the name of national security, redistribution, and social justice. To oppose Clinton is to confront these ideological differences which may be impossible to change in a blog post. But there are some critiques that virtually everyone can agree are quite concerning.

The Rule of Law

The biggest issue is the double standard of the law as applied to Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information with her private email server. FBI Director James Comey indicated that because there was no intentional mishandling of information, any case against Clinton would fail despite clear violations of the law. Yet, as Glenn Greenwald points out, this is not how low-level government employees who accidentally mishandle classified information are normally treated. In fact, according to Greenwald, the Obama administration has prosecuted “more individuals under the Espionage Act of 1917 for improperly handling classified information than all previous administrations combined.”

This includes some crazy examples Greenwald lists:

NSA whistleblower Tom Drake, for instance, faced years in prison, and ultimately had his career destroyed, based on the Obama DOJ’s claims that he “mishandled” classified information (it included information that was not formally classified at the time but was retroactively decreed to be such). Less than two weeks ago, “a Naval reservist was convicted and sentenced for mishandling classified military materials” despite no “evidence he intended to distribute them.” Last year, a Naval officer was convicted of mishandling classified information also in the absence of any intent to distribute it.

The idea that the FBI couldn’t get a case together when Clinton insecurely stored documents far more sensitive than those mishandled by low level government workers is absurd. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Clinton necessarily did something immoral; it’s also true that the American government vastly over-classifies everything and is far too zealous about prosecuting people who mishandle information. So called “classified” documents may be classified simply because bureaucrats are playing it safe and covering everything as broadly as possible to avoid any problems. They may even be classified when national security is not in danger but rather because it is simply politically expedient to do so.

But it’s clear that Clinton broke the law and was not prosecuted due to who she is. It’s also true that she repeatedly lied (or didn’t know) about breaking these laws. The stories about her include brazen lifting of NSA classified intelligence sent to unsecured email servers simply because she didn’t want to access email like a regular employee. Against a real opponent, this would be damning.

Moreover, as Scott Shackford at Reason points out, Hillary herself has specifically criticized people who released classified information, even if that information significantly changed the national debate on a topic and led to courts ruling programs unconstitutional:

We’re also talking about a woman who thinks Edward Snowden didn’t go through “proper channels” before leaking information about mass domestic surveillance to the public and should face legal consequences, though the whistleblowing channels she refers to probably wouldn’t have applied in Snowden’s situation. Despite deliberately not managing communications appropriately to make sure everything goes through “proper channels” with correct level of security, she wants to be treated differently.

Again, given Hillary will likely be the president anyway, there are plenty of alternative candidates who have never mishandled classified information that voters can and should cast their ballot for. Voting to state you disapprove of a president using this double standard seems like a worthy undertaking in its own right. At the very least, it is hugely troubling that the likely-president has already avoided the law due to political stature. The fact that our political system gave us a choice between an unpopular, incompetent, flip-flopping authoritarian and someone who couldn’t even follow the laws on classified information as a cabinet secretary is a huge indictment on the system. And any system that allows a president to win when they’ve already demonstrated the law doesn’t apply to them is dangerous. A vote for Hillary is an approval of that system.

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Picture Credit: Marc Nozell, Hillary Clinton in Nashua, NH 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.