Archives: 01/2010

George Clooney’s Docile Body

up_in_the_air_georgeclooney2Running the airport maze to board my flight from Madrid back to the U.S. last week, I found myself thinking, with no small measure of envy, about Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character from Up in the Air. The ultimate frequent flier, Bingham slides shoes and belt off, flips laptop from case, and aligns them neatly on the x-ray conveyor in a seamless, fluid display of security Tai Chi. He navigates from curb to gate and back with crisp efficiency, every motion practiced and automatic.

My envy was tempered somewhat as I reread Discipline and Punish on the trip back. Bingham’s military precision, it struck me, was the product of a form of training implicit in the security process. As a corrective brace “teaches” the proper posture just by making it the only comfortable one, the screening procedures embed a set of tacit instructions, consisting of the optimal set of motions required to pass through smoothly.  And of course, it teaches more than bodily motions: Bigham knows you don’t stand behind the Arabs in the screening line!

That’s not to say airport security is some kind of insidious brainwashing program, but there’s a dimension of privacy here that it seems to me we don’t talk about nearly enough. Our paradigms of privacy harms are invasion (the jackboot at the door, in the extreme case) and exposure (the intimate detail revealed). We generally think of these as exceptions — as what happens when surveillance goes wrong, either because it gets the wrong target or, when the surveillance is universal by design, because information that’s supposed to remain protected falls into the wrong hands or is otherwise misused.   Invasion and exposure may be serious problems, but they are fundamentally mistakes — hiccups in the system we can seek to fix.

Discipline, by contrast, is what inevitably happens when the system functions as intended, at least to the extent people are conscious of being (actual or potential) targets of surveillance. It is probably not as serious a harm as invasion or exposure most of the time, but it’s also by far the most pervasive and ineradicable effect of surveillance. It would be nice if our debates about surveillance included not just the question “What will be exposed?” but also “How — and for what — are we training ourselves?”

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

Weekend Links

On C-SPAN: What’s a Little Promise Among Friends?

My, oh my. Transparency is getting defined down to excuse a breaking campaign promise.

At the Center for American Progress’ “Think Progress Wonk Room” blog (or whatever it’s called), Igor Volsky makes the case against allowing C-SPAN cameras into negotiations about the health care bill. Recall that President Obama promised on the campaign trail to have health care negotiations broadcast on C-SPAN.

“But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009,” says Volsky, “filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.”

He does have a point. Television causes politicians to grandstand and doesn’t necessarily improve the legislative process.

But President Obama knew that when he made the promise, and he made the promise all the same. The credibility of the legislative process suffers from its overall opacity, and Candidate Obama promised different, starting with health care legislation — to progressives’ cheers as much as any other group.

Yet he appears to be walking away from that promise. And Volsky wants to abet him with a transparency caveat — only if it “improve[s] the underlying bill.”

Improvement is in the eye of the beholder, of course. This is not a welcome gloss. It’s bait and switch. “[T]he reality of politics doesn’t square with the promises of the campaign trail,” says Volsky.

Matt Yglesias’ short post backing his co-blogger is — appropriately, perhaps — opaque: “This is also an example of the concrete harm done to the country by politicians overestimating the impact of campaign tactics on election outcomes.” I don’t understand what that means.

Ezra Klein has the decency to say he’s conflicted. He admits that a transparent health care conference might be “better than nothing,” but he makes the same argument as Volsky: the process will change, but not necessarily for the better. No mention that this was a promise, or that the credibility of the president to marginal voters matters.

The argument that transparency is only useful if it leads to a better bill is reminiscent of Lawrence Lessig’s widely panned essay “Against Transparency.” I wrote of it:

Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement” — unvarnished access to government data — “is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

These commentators have sounder premises, of course. They want transparency to improve legislation.

But transparency is not simply a means to better bills. It’s a means to better politicians — when people see one leader being smart and fair, while others are not. It’s a means to a better organized society — if people decide that politicians aren’t as qualified to apportion society’s resources as they thought. It’s a means to better-run programs — when people compare the dollars going in with the results coming out. Heck, transparency is a civics lesson for high school students! There is a transparency vision that these commentators eschew in favor of the status quo.

Even good John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to transparency, kicks the ground and mumbles about televising conference committees not being a panacea. The promise was to broadcast “negotiations,” of course, not just the formal meeting of any conference committee. And one of the commenters on his post has the better of it. “Open [conference committees] are not a panacea, but they are one tent-pole,” says Sarah Welsh of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Her state mandated open conference committess last year, for the good.

And it was a campaign promise.

“The public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote,” Igor Volsky says. Which brings us to another promise: On the campaign trail, Candidate Obama said, “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

The president is currently six for 124 on that promise, having shown recent improvement. But one has to wonder how Volsky would caveat away that promise and further define down government transparency.

One to watch: President Obama’s promise to “go line by line” over earmarks, which OMB has said it will implement by collecting and databasing Congressmembers’ earmark requests in the FY 2011 budget cycle.

Libertarian Surge

David Paul Kuhn at RealClearPolitics sees a surge of libertarianism in the current political scene:

The philosophical casualty of the Great Recession was supposed to be libertarianism. But signs to the contrary are thriving.

Americans are increasingly opposed to activist government programs. The most significant social movement of 2009, the Tea Party protests, grew out of that opposition. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand is as popular today as ever. Rand’s brilliant and radical laissez faire novel “Atlas Shrugged,” sold roughly 300,000 copies last year, according to BookScan, twice its sales in 2008 and roughly triple annual sales in recent decades.

We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback. It’s an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism since the financial crisis. It’s a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. The factional bastions of traditional libertarianism, like Washington think tank Cato, now have an intangible and awkward alliance with a broad swath of the American electorate….

This limited libertarian resurgence has haunted Obama’s domestic agenda. The fundamental mistake of the Obama administration in 2009 was underestimating the American public’s ongoing tension with active-state liberalism, a fact visible from the outset and one only belatedly confronted by Obama….

Today’s limited libertarian revival is a response to a sense of overreaching elite technocrats as well as fear of an intrusive bureaucracy. Responsiveness is the core impulse. Rand’s radical libertarianism, where man is an ends in himself and the welfare state is fundamentally immoral, was a response to the radically invasive Soviet state that weaned her as a girl. On a drastically less extreme scale, one side of this American debate could not exist without the other. The Obama administration brought with it ambitions of a resurgence of FDR and LBJ’s active-state liberalism. And with it, Obama has revived the enduring American challenge to the state.

I’ve been struck by the fact that two recent profiles in the New York Times magazine — one on Dick Armey and one on the rise of Marco Rubio in Florida — have identified Tea Party protesters as libertarians, which I think is largely right but not generally noticed by pundits who can only hold two concepts (red and blue, conservative and liberal) in their minds at once. It’s not that the Tea Partiers are carrying pro-choice or anti–drug war signs, it’s just that their focus and their energy are, as the Armey profile put it, “libertarian, anti-Washington, old-fashioned get-out-of-my-way-and-I’ll-make-it-on-my-own American self-sufficiency.” They’re up in arms about spending, deficits, bailouts, government handouts, and a government takeover of health care. That’s a populist libertarian spirit.

Kuhn describes the current mood as “conservative libertarianism,” which he contrasts to “traditional libertarianism” that embraces a laissez-faire approach to both economics and personal freedom. He may be right that a lot of the Tea Partiers are not as comprehensively pro-freedom or “anti-government” (really, pro-limited government) as I’d like. But I see some evidence of a social libertarian surge as well, as I wrote back in May. Polls are finding growing support for marijuana legalization and for marriage equality, especially among young people. As young people and independents also become increasingly disillusioned with President Obama’s big-government agenda, this may be a real shift in a libertarian direction. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.

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The Buck Stops with Obama

Today Politico Arena asks:

Do you feel safer from terrorism today than you did the day before? Assess Obama’s response.

My response:

So Obama tells us that the buck stops with him.  Aides signaled that in saying that, Politico reports, the president “was consciously seeking to be the anti-Bush, airing his administration’s dirty laundry and stepping up to take his share of the responsibility.”  Yet as Arena contributor Dana Perino notes in response, with evidence in hand, they don’t even have their facts right.  Bush repeatedly took responsibility, and for good reason:  There was much to be responsible for, not least the creation of the intelligence bureaucracy that failed so clearly to connect the Christmas Day dots, as discussed in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
 
But before we heap too much blame on the bureaucracy and those who created it, let’s recognize that this administration’s obsession with appearing “anti-Bush,” which has been its leitmotif from the start, could hardly have inspired even the most conscientious bureaucrat.  This is not the place to recount the countless ways Obama and his people have sought to downplay the terrorist threat — or “man-caused disasters” — even as no fewer than 12 terrorist incidents, including thwarted plots, were unfolding on American soil during its tenure, culminating with November’s Fort Hood murders.  Arena contributor Walter Russell Mead put it well last evening: “The narrative that a lawyer-run, PC-happy, Miranda crazed administration is coddling criminals rather than protecting the people has been gaining a kind of subterranean credibility out there past the Beltway.”  And not without reason.
 
We can hope that the administration is at last taking terrorism seriously, but there are still too many signs that it is learning on the fly, so we will have to keep reminding Obama and his people that the buck does indeed stop with them.