Archives: September, 2009

Waiter, Cancel That Order of Crow

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post writes today that she feels compelled to “eat at least a spoonful of crow.”

Her menu selection is driven by her assessment of President Obama’s “education reform” accomplishments to date.

The term “education reform” is meaningless. All it implies is that, in whatever small way, things will be done differently from the way they have been done in the past. Not necessarily better, or worse, just differently. Even the president’s painfully vague campaign message (“Hope and Change”) at least indicated that the sought-after change was supposed to be in a positive direction. “Reform” doesn’t even convey that – let alone giving any indication of the nature, rationale or evidence for the change.

So, yes, the president is “reforming” certain aspects of education. But whether it’s higher-ed, pre-k, or the qualified expansion of charter schools, the new form does not seem noticeably better than the old one.

Breaking: Economics 101 Still in Effect

Dairy farmers are working lobbying hard to ensure they get their hands on more of your money.  Apparently, changes made last year to the Milk Income Loss Contract – mainly to take account of rising feed costs – were not enough to stem the losses.

The Senate recently voted to give the USDA an extra $350 million for dairy farmers’ support. The House left dairy support out of its appropriations bill, so the two chambers are working on the compromise now (prediction: the taxpayer will get screwed).

Here’s an ironic quote from a Brownfield news post yesterday (linked to above). It’s Missouri Dairy Association Chairman Larry Purdom on how to bring prices back up:

“Our feeling is that if [USDA] would buy some cheese and product that’s in storage…hanging over our heads, depressing prices,” Purdom tells Brownfield from his farm at Purdy, Missouri, “we feel like the prices would start moving on their own if we didn’t have this surplus.”

More on U.S. dairy policy here.

This Is Your Brain on Torture

We’ve all heard the argument that a subject under torture—or whatever this week’s euphemism is—may begin fabricating whatever they believe the interrogator wants to hear just to get the agony to stop.  Now neuroscientists are suggesting that inflicting too much pain and stress on a subject may not just induce them to lie; it may cause them to lose track of what’s true and false altogether:

Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as this 2006 study reported. “Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred,” notes O’Mara. “Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

Stress also releases catecholamines such as noradrenaline, which can enlarge the amygdale (structures involved in the processing of fear), also impairing memory and the ability to distinguish a true memory from a false or implanted one. Brain imaging of torture victims, as in this study, suggest why: torture triggers abnormal patterns of activation in the frontal and temporal lobes, impairing memory. Rather than a question triggering a (relatively) simple pattern of brain activation that leads to the stored memory of information that can answer the question, the question stimulates memories almost chaotically, without regard to their truthfulness.

In brief, the subject may lose genuine memories, and come to believe that their confabulations are authentic ones. The full literature review, from Trends in Cognitive Science, can be downloaded in PDF form here.

Taking Over Everything

“My critics say that I’m taking over every sector of the economy,” President Obama sighed to George Stephanopoulos during his Sunday media blitz.

Not every sector. Just

This president and his Ivy League advisers believe that they know how an economy should develop better than hundreds of millions of market participants spending their own money every day. That is what F. A. Hayek called the “fatal conceit,” the idea that smart people can design a real economy on the basis of their abstract ideas.

This is not quite socialism. In most of these cases, President Obama doesn’t propose to actually nationalize the means of production. (In the case of the automobile companies, he clearly did.) He just wants to use government money and government regulations to extend political control over all these sectors of the economy. And the more political control achieves, the more we can expect political favoritism, corruption, uneconomic decisions, and slower economic growth.

TLJ on Genachowski’s ‘Net Neutrality’ Speech

TechLawJournal is a consistently high-quality subscription service that provides news, records, and analysis of legislation, litigation, and regulation affecting the computer, Internet, communications and information technology sectors. It reported this morning on FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s speech proposing to regulate the provision of Internet service. The TLJ piece includes background that I think might benefit Cato@Liberty readers wishing to understand the issues better, so I asked for and received permission to republish it here.

[TLJ Report after the jump]

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski gave a speech [8 pages in PDF] in which he proposed that the FCC promulgate rules that contain network neutrality mandates.

The other two Democratic Commissioners promptly issued releases expressing their support. Thus, a majority of the Commissioners have announced their support.

Genachowski said that his policy goal is “preserving and maintaining an open and robust Internet”. He asserted that without FCC regulation “We could see the Internet’s doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised”.

He stated in vague terms that the FCC should adopt rules the [sic] include the four principles of the policy statement [3 pages in PDF] adopted by the FCC in August of 2005, plus new principles of non-discrimination and transparency.

He announced that “I will soon circulate to my fellow Commissioners proposed rules prepared by Commission staff embodying the principles I’ve discussed, and I will ask for their support in issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking.”

He boasted that “we will be focused on formulating policies that will maximize innovation and investment, consumer choice, and greater competition”.

Genachowski gave a policy speech. The prepared text of his speech says nothing about where the FCC would derive statutory authority to promulgate the rules which he proposes. Nor did he address what would be the FCC’s strategy for evading and surviving judicial review of any new rules.

He argued that “the free and open Internet faces emerging and substantial challenges. We’ve already seen some clear examples of deviations from the Internet’s historic openness”.

He cited three events. First, he said that “We have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to VoIP applications (phone calls delivered over data networks)”.

This is a reference to the FCC’s dealings with a small company named Madison River Communications. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau was able to stop the VOIP blocking by consent decree [PDF] without resort to any network neutrality rules. The practice of VOIP blocking has not recurred. See also, story titled “FCC Stops Broadband Provider From Blocking VOIP Traffic” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,089, March 7, 2005. That decree is DA 05-543 in File No. EB-05-IH-0110.

Second, he said that broadband providers have and implemented “technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content.”

This is a reference to the FCC’s August 2008 order [67 pages in PDF] pertaining to Comcast’s management of certain peer to peer traffic. That order is the subject of a petition for review now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals (DCCir). See, story titled “FCC Asserts Authority to Regulate Network Management Practices” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,805, August 4, 2008. That order is FCC 08-183 in Docket No. 07-52.

Third, he said that “We have even seen at least one service provider deny users access to political content.”

This is likely a reference to a brief dispute in 2007 between Verizon and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) regarding short code based services sent from and received by mobile phones. See, story titled “Verizon Wireless and Net Neutrality Advocates Clash Over Text Messaging” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,647, September 27, 2007. See also, letter from Verizon Wireless to NARAL dated September 27, 2007, and NARAL’s web page titled “NARAL Pro-Choice America Wins Fight over Corporate Censorship”. See also, story titled “Public Knowledge Asks FCC to Declare that Blocking and Refusing to Carry Text Messages Violates Title II” in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,686, December 11, 2007. This proceeding is WT Docket No. 08-7.

In addition to these three events, Genachowski argued that there are three general reasons to be “concerned about the future of openness”.

First, he said that there is “limited competition among service providers”.

Second, he said that broadband service providers “rely upon revenue from selling phone service, cable TV subscriptions, or both. These services increasingly compete with voice and video products provided over the Internet. The net result is that broadband providers’ rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers in competition and choice.”

The third reason for concern, said Genachowski, “involves the explosion of traffic”.

He then announced that he would propose new rules, and described the content of those rules. He said, “I propose that the FCC adopt the existing principles as Commission rules, along with two additional principles that reflect the evolution of the Internet and that are essential to ensuring its continued openness.”

The four principles in the 2005 policy statement (with footnotes omitted) are as follows:

“To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.”

“To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.”

“To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.”

“To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.”

Genachowski said that his fifth principle is “non-discrimination – stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.”

He elaborated that this means that “they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider.”

However, he added that there should be exceptions, such as “reasonably managing their networks”, for example, during “periods of network congestion”. He also cited “efforts to ensure a safe, secure, and spam-free Internet experience, or to enforce the law”.

He added that “open Internet principles apply only to lawful content, services and applications – not to activities like unlawful distribution of copyrighted works”. He said that “The enforcement of copyright and other laws and the obligations of network openness can and must co-exist.”

He also stated that the FCC should “evaluate alleged violations of the non-discrimination principle as they arise, on a case-by-case basis”.

Genachowski said that his sixth principle is “transparency”. By this he means that broadband service providers “must be transparent about their network management practices”. And, he noted that in the Comcast proceeding, referenced above, that Comcast initially acted “with no notice to subscribers or the public”.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn released a statement in which she said that “I fully support Chairman Genachowski’s intention to take affirmative measures to preserve the openness of the Internet.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps released a statement in which he said that “Chairman Genachowski’s bold announcement today is a significant further investment in safeguarding Internet Freedom. I salute him for it.” He praised each of the six items in Genachowski’s proposal. However, he did not endorse adopting rules according to Genachowski’s proposal. It is possible that he may seek further regulation of broadband service providers, or further changes to the FCC’s rules and declaratory rulings.

What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You (Surveillance State Edition)

While there are many choice tidbits to relate from Tuesday’s hearings on PATRIOT Act reform at the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution—not least the fellow who had to be wrestled from the room, literally kicking and screaming, after he tried to stand and interrupt with a complaint about alleged FBI violations of his civil rights—I’ll just relate a novel theory of the Fourth Amendment advanced by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

The ACLU’s Mike German, a former FBI agent turned surveillance policy expert, was explaining that it’s hard to know whether expansive surveillance powers are being abused, they’re mostly used in secret and deployed via third-parties like financial institutions and telecoms, who have little incentive to raise much fuss or draw attention to their cooperation. King interrupted to suggest that if we weren’t hearing about constitutional challenges, then it was probably safe to assume there was no Fourth Amendment harm. German tried to reiterate that the people whose privacy interests were directly harmed typically would not know they had ever been targeted.

That, King declared, was precisely the point. Surveillance of which the subject never became aware, he said, could be compared to a “tree falling in the forest” when nobody’s around. In other words, if you aren’t ultimately prosecuted, and don’t even feel subjective distress as a result of the knowledge that your private records or communications have been pored over, then it’s presumably no harm, no  foul. If we take this line of thinking literally, sufficiently secret surveillance can never be unconstitutional, which would seem to make King a spiritual cousin of Richard “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” Nixon.

Americans Don’t Want It

“Americans are more likely today than in the recent past to believe that government is taking on too much responsibility for solving the nation’s problems and is over-regulating business,” according to a new Gallup Poll.

New Gallup data show that 57% of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals, and 45% say there is too much government regulation of business. Both reflect the highest such readings in more than a decade.

Byron York of the Examiner notes:

The last time the number of people who believe government is doing too much hit 57 percent was in October 1994, shortly before voters threw Democrats out of power in both the House and Senate. It continued to rise after that, hitting 60 percent in December 1995, before settling down in the later Clinton and Bush years.

Also, the number of people who say there is too much government regulation of business and industry has reached its highest point since Gallup began asking the question in 1993.

That might give an ambitious administration pause. The independents who swung the elections in 2006 and 2008 clearly think things have gone too far. An administration as smart as Bill Clinton’s will take the hint and rein it in. Meanwhile, another recent poll, by the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center, shows that

Americans decidedly oppose the government’s efforts to save struggling companies by taking ownership stakes even if failure of the businesses would cost jobs and harm the economy, a new poll shows.

The Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll of views on the Constitution found little support for the idea that the government had to save AIG, the world’s largest insurer, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the iconic American company General Motors last year because they were too big to fail.

Just 38 percent of Americans favor government intervention - with 60 percent opposed - to keep a company in business to prevent harm to the economy. The number in favor drops to a third when jobs would be lost, without greater damage to the economy.

Similarly strong views showed up over whether the president should have more power at the expense of Congress and the courts, if doing so would help the economy. Three-fourths of Americans said no, up from two-thirds last year.

“It really does ratify how much Americans are against the federal government taking over private industry,” said Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analyzed the results of the survey.

Note that 71 percent of the respondents opposed government takeovers, with 50 percent strongly opposed, before the “benefits” of such takeovers were presented.

President Obama is an eloquent spokesman for his agenda, and he has an excellent political team with a lot of outside allies to push it. But as the old advertising joke goes, you can have the best research and the best design and the best advertising for your dog food, but it won’t sell if the dogs don’t like it.