Topic: Political Philosophy

Private Satellite Firm Aids Boeing 737 Investigation

Canada privatized its air traffic control (ATC) system in 1996. Today, Nav Canada is on the leading edge of ATC innovation worldwide. With Iridium, Nav Canada co-founded Aerion in 2012, which produces satellite-based tracking of global airliner movements. This is the future of air traffic control as it promises greater safety, fewer delays, savings of fuel, and more efficient use of airspace. The U.S. ATC system is not an investor in this revolutionary project.

Our government-run ATC is falling behind the privatized systems in Canada and the United Kingdom. ATC is a high-tech business, yet we run our system as an old-fashioned and mismanaged bureaucracy within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Aerion made the news last week when it provided crucial data on the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX crash, which killed 157 people. CNBC reported, “Even after dozens of countries grounded Boeing’s 737 Max, the FAA did not. It was only until ‘actionable data’ arrived from Aireon that the FAA made the decision, acting Administrator Daniel Elwell told CNBC.”

And here is what the Wall Street Journal reported:

When the Federal Aviation Administration reversed course and grounded Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jetliner, it moved partly after seeing data from a little-known aerospace newcomer that is changing the way the aviation industry tracks planes.

Aireon LLC, based in McLean, Va., was founded less than a decade ago—the brainchild of satellite maker Iridium Communications Inc. and Canada’s air-traffic managers. It collects and then distributes to partners, including air-traffic-control providers around the world, some of the operational data that passenger jets automatically send out in real time.

Using gear it has placed on satellites, Aireon gathers data such as a plane’s speed, heading, altitude and position. It gets updates every eight seconds or less. Air-traffic-control providers increasingly use the data to track planes from tarmac to tarmac—a capability only made possible with the development of sophisticated satellite networks.

In the case of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed Sunday killing 157, Aireon said it started furnishing its raw data as early as Monday to the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, Canadian officials and other authorities. The data would have required some time to analyze, according to an Aireon spokeswoman.

Once recipients crunched the numbers, they found similarities between the six-minute flight path of the crashed Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX and that of a Lion Air 737 MAX that crashed, after 11 minutes, killing all 189 aboard, less than five months earlier. Canadian officials said they had finished analyzing the Aireon-provided data only by Wednesday morning. They decided to ground the jet a few hours later. President Trump announced a U.S. grounding a few hours after that.

The FAA isn’t an Aireon investor, though the two have worked together previously.

… Aireon is owned by Iridium; Nav Canada, the Canadian air-traffic-control agency; and a handful of other air-traffic-control providers, including those in Britain and Ireland. … Aireon currently offers its services to 11 air-traffic-service providers spanning 28 countries. … No U.S. airline has said it is using the system.

Lessons from Rome on Executive Power and Restraint

Recent events have unnerved many Americans about the political problem of executive power. Though it seems not to bother the vast majority of citizens, there has been at least some recognition in the public conversation that the mere possibility that a personage like Donald Trump could get elected president is precisely why a system of ever-expanding executive power, such as ours, is dangerous. But the truth is, this concern has been percolating since September 11, 2001. Both Bush and Obama left the office more powerful than they found it. And that makes perfect sense: if history shows us anything, it’s that war centralizes power – often into the hands of a single person.

But as the 2020 campaign picks up, it showcases that the expansion of executive authority isn’t relegated to war powers. While Trump does his best impression of a 19th century European demagogue, Democrats are promising citizens everything to the sun and back in language that seems to presume god-like capacities in the office of the president. Unfortunately, talking points on circumscribing executive power make for an unappealing stump speech.

It is therefore worthwhile to reflect on the reason why America’s political heritage features strenuous efforts to protect against kingly usurpers. The Founding generation looked to Rome for lessons. I was struck by this passage from a book by historians Joseph R. Strayer and Dana C. Munro, a succinct history on the expansion of executive power in ancient Rome:

Rome had once been a republic, ruled by an aristocratic Senate whose power could be checked only by uprisings of the city mob. In the first century B.C. this political system caused so much disorder that the citizens of Rome allowed power to be concentrated in the hands of one man - a boss or a dictator. Octavian, the last of these bosses, became Augustus, the first emperor. His powers, however, were not much greater than those of a strong American president. He was commander of the army and head of the administration; he made policy and proposed laws, but he was supposed to act with the advice of the Senate. Augustus’ successors, however, assumed much more power. Frequent civil wars and the necessity of protecting the frontiers made their military functions more important and decreased the power of the Senate. Then came a long period of anarchy in the middle of the third century. When a strong emperor, Diocletian, finally emerged in 285, the condition of the Empire was so bad that every one acquiesced in his assumption of absolute authority. Diocletian and his successors named all officials and levied taxes at will. They were the supreme judges and court of last appeal of the Empire; they had the power of life and death over every citizen. It was an accepted maxim that “the will of the prince has the force of law, since the Roman people by law have transferred to their prince the full extent of their power and sovereignty.”

Notwithstanding how eerily familiar that all sounds, I’m not convinced that we’re condemned to a similarly despotic fate. But as the political scientist Christopher J. Fettweis has recently pointed out, an added pressure in this direction comes from the fact that the United States, as in the case of Rome, is for all intents and purposes a unipolar power (whatever they say these days about the return of multipolarity). Like Rome at the height of its imperial glory, U.S. power in the international system today is highly asymmetrical. It’s foreign policy is preoccupied not with overcoming existential peril from proximate peer belligerents intent on total war, but with chasing remote (and sometimes imaginary) threats in the distant reaches of the periperhy. Unchecked international power carries some of the same hazards as unchecked power in the domestic realm. Look no further than the Trump administration’s spurious citations of the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to legitimate ongoing, and potentially future, wars across the Middle East. Prudence and the Constitution would seem to obligate Congress to repeal, and not replace, these outdated authorizations.

Luckily, as Fettweis details at length through the example of Roman Emperor Hadrian, leaders always have the choice of retrenching and exercising restraint: “By keeping its threats in proper perspective, the United States could recognise that its security does not demand robust international military action. By restraining itself, the United States could demonstrate to the world that force should be a last resort, even for the strongest, most capable state in history, and thus do more to promote peace than all its misguided attempts at global policing. And it would waste far less blood and treasure in the process.”

Here’s hoping.

The Church of Safe Injection

One major negative of drug prohibition is that it causes riskier ingestion methods.  Prohibition raises drug prices, which encourages injection to get a big bang for the buck.  Prohibition also fosters restrictions on clean syringes, which means users exchange dirty needles, increasing the transmission of HIV and other diseases.

Prohibition also increases overdoses, since potency is difficult to assess in a black market.

Hence the Church of Safe Injection:

Lewiston, Maine: On an 11-degree night here this month, an unconventional mass was held outdoors, next to a 2017 Honda parked on a street corner.

The altar took the form of the small car’s hatchback trunk. The not-so-typical communion: sterile needles, the overdose antidote naloxone, and the rubber tourniquets used prior to drug injection. For shooting and mixing heroin hygienically, alcohol swabs and sterile water. For the cold, hand warmers and socks, and for the hungry, granola bars.

At the center of it all was Jesse Harvey, 26, a Portland-area peer recovery coach who is the founder of the Church of Safe Injection.

The congregation lends structure to a rogue coalition of harm-reduction advocates who work to distribute thousands of syringes — possessing more than 10 is illegal in Maine — as well as hundreds of doses of naloxone. Members of the “church” don’t take that title lightly.

Such organizations are a small but sensible step toward reducing the harm from drug use.  Better still, opiods would be legal, thereby reducing the incentive to inject or share needles and making it easier for users to determine potency.

Until then, however, safe needle exchanges and other harm reduction measures (like Methadone Maintenance) are steps in the right direction.  Cato’s Jeffrey Singer makes a compelling case for harm reduction here.  And Cato will host a conference on harm reduction on March 21st in Washington, DC.

 

 

Three Problems with Taxpayer Financing of Election Campaigns

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has introduced H.R. 1, a bill with two public financing components: one a pilot program for vouchers, and the other a conventional if generous subsidy program for small donations. I focus here on the latter. 

Public financing schemes have often focused on encouraging small donors in part to allegedly counter the influence of “Big Money.” The financing of campaigns by taxpayers fits easily into a number of dichotomies that structure our public discourse: small/large, vulnerable/powerful, poor/rich, left/right, and of course, friend/enemy. The realities are less exciting and persuasive than the rhetoric. 

It is an odd time to be pushing government spending on congressional candidates. Federal deficits are now approaching a trillion dollars annually. Small donor fundraising is much easier and much more successful than in the past. ActBlue, a “fundraising technology for the left [seeking] to democratize power and help small-dollar donors make their voices heard in a real way,” had a record election in 2018. It funneled over $1.6 billion to Democratic candidates.     

In that respect, this bill is entirely predictable in a highly partisan time. The government subsidy is six times the sum raised by small donations. A new majority is thus proposing a $9.6 billion (yes, billion) subsidy for its congressional candidates in the 2020 election. All things being equal, that would be a massive advantage for the party in that election. 

But things need not be equal. Such a huge subsidy would encourage the GOP to find small donors. Maybe “ActRed” would ready for 2020 and enjoy equal success. That’s not likely but let’s assume it is for purposes of argument.  

Where would the billions needed to finance this program come from? The funding  would involve new taxes or borrowing since it is new spending. So either current or future taxpayers would finance the program.  

Here’s one problem: the government would be using its power of coercion to force people to support candidates and parties they do not support (indeed, to support people they don’t want their children to marry). This coercion would happen more to Republicans than Democrats at first, but Republicans might get better at claiming the subsidies over time. We would end up with the government coercing everyone without regard to partisan commitments.  

Advocates of taxpayer financing also might think the scheme takes the side of “the people” (small donors) against the elite (current donors). ActBlue reports they had 4.9 million unique donors in 2018. That’s a large absolute number. But it constitutes about 3 percent of eligible voters in the United States. These ActBlue contributors are not average Americans. ActBlue donors are also a small portion of liberals in America. In 2016, about 26 percent of the nation identified as liberal or about 47 million people. Hence ActBlue got money from just over 10 percent of liberals. By any measure, ActBlue donors are a political elite. No doubt they are a political elite that believes their policy views represent what’s good for the nation and the average American. But they are not average Americans.  

Finally, this bill asks taxpayers to provide the parties with large sums for their campaigns. But ActBlue showed that the small donor elite can be mobilized, and Republicans have every incentive to match ActBlue’s success. Given that private political entities are doing well with small donors, why should the taxpayer be forced to support candidates and parties they do not want to support? Don’t taxpayers have better uses for $20 billion? 

Can Pluralism Work Online?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook has consulted with conservative individuals and groups about its content moderation. Recently I suggested that social media managers would be inclined to give stakeholders a voice (though not a veto) on content moderation policies. Some on the left were well ahead in this game, proposing that the tech companies essentially turn over content moderation of “hate speech” to them. Giving voice to the right represents a kind of rebalancing of the play of political forces. 

argued earlier that looking to stakeholders had a flaw. These groups would be highly organized representatives of their members but not of most users of a platform. The infamous “special interests” of regular politics would thus come to dominate social media content moderation which in turn would have trouble generating legitimacy with users and the larger world outside of the internet.  

But another possibility exists which might be called “pluralism.” Both left and right are organized and thus are stakeholders. Social media managers recognize and seek advice from both sides about content moderation. But the managers retain the right of deciding the “content” part of content moderation. The groups are not happy, but we settle into a stable equilibrium that over time becomes a de facto speech regime for social media.  

A successful pluralism is possible. A lot will depend on the managers rapidly developing the political skills necessary to the task. They may be honing such skills. Facebook’s efforts with conservatives are far from hiring the usual suspects to get out of a jam. Twitter apparently followed conservative advice and verified a pro-gun Parkland survivor, an issue of considerable importance to conservative web pundits, given the extent of institutional support for the March for Our Lives movement. Note I am not saying the Right will win out but rather the companies may be able to manage a balanced system of oversight.  

But there will be challenges for this model.  

Spending decisions by Congress are often seen as a case of pluralist bargaining. Better organized or more skillful groups get more from the appropriations process; those who lose out can be placated with “side payments” to make legislation possible. Overall you get spending bills that no one completely likes, but everyone can live with until the next appropriations cycle. (I know that libertarians reject this sort of pluralism, but I not discussing what should be but rather what is as a way of understanding private content moderation). 

Here’s the challenge. The groups trying to affect social media content moderation are not bargaining over money. The left believes much of the rhetoric of the right has no place on any platform. The right notes that most social media employees lean left and wonder if their effort to cleanse the platforms begins with Alex Jones and ends with Charles Murray (i.e. everyone on the right). The right is thus tempted to call in a fourth player in the pluralist game of content moderation: the federal government. Managing pluralist competition and bargaining is a lot harder in a time of culture wars, as Facebook and Google have discovered.  

Transparency will not help matters. The Journal article mentioned earlier states: 

For users frustrated by the lack of clarity around how these companies make decisions, the added voices have made matters even murkier. Meetings between companies and their unofficial advisers are rarely publicized, and some outside groups and individuals have to sign nondisclosure agreements. 

Murkiness has its value! In this case, it allows candid discussions between the tech companies and various representatives of the left and the right. Those conversations might build trust between the companies and the groups from the left and the right and maybe even, among the groups. The left might stop thinking democracy is threatened online, and the right might conclude they are not eventually going to be pushed off the platforms. We might end up with rules for online speech that no one completely likes and yet are better than all realistic alternatives.  

Now imagine that everything about private content moderation is made public. For some, allowing speech on a platform will become compromising with “hate.” (Even if a group’s leaders don’t actually believe that, they would be required to say it for political reasons). Suppressing harassment or threats will frighten others and foster calls for government intervention to protect speech online. Our culture wars will endlessly inform the politics of content moderation. That outcome is unlikely to be the best we can hope for in an era when most speech will be online. 

 

Imperial Rites

Writing in National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke decries the pharaonic spectacle of the modern presidential funeral. “Whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee.” In order to honor his passing, Cooke asks, do we really need to shut down the stock market, postal service, and much of the nation’s capital for a national day of mourning? The whole business marks “another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual.” I’m glad he said it first, but he’s absolutely right.

Our first president, ever conscious of the precedents he could set, didn’t want an elaborate state funeral. “It is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration,” Washington declared in his will. 

You’ve got to respect that—but, of course, we didn’t. Instead, “there was a massive public funeral at Mount Vernon,” Brady Carlson recounts in his 2016 book Dead Presidents, with a parade organized by Washington’s Masonic lodge, including “musicians, clergy, troops, and a riderless horse, a military tradition reportedly dating back to the age of Genghis Khan”—along with funeral orations by four ministers, topped off with “three general discharges of infantry, the cavalry, and eleven pieces of artillery, which lined the banks of the Potomac.”

The passing of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison, the first to die in office, set more precedents still. The interminable inaugural address that supposedly killed him featured Whiggish professions of deference to the legislature and the people–the president as a modest “accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master.” Yet, according to the White House Historical Association, ‘the 30-day ceremonials surrounding the death of Harrison were modeled after royal funerals.” “There were bells, cannons, and funeral dirges,” Carlson writes, the White House was draped in black as “the late president and his casket rode in a black and white carriage pulled by six white horses, escorted by a pallbearer for each of the country’s twenty-six states and held up on a raised dais so the ten thousand people who turned up could see.” 

We fought a revolution to rid ourselves of kings, but, ironically enough, in the mother country, the sendoff for a former head of government tends to be decidedly less regal. The last British Prime Minister to get a state funeral was Winston Churchill. The pomp surrounding Margaret Thatcher’s 2013 funeral blurred the lines, a development the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne condemned as a “constitutional innovation… foolish and wrong”: 

Our constitution is defined by a rigorous separation between the head of state (the monarch) and the head of government (the prime minister). This marks us out from other countries, such as the United States of America, where the head of state and chief executive are merged in one person. As Anthony Sampson wrote in the Anatomy of Britain, the advantage of the British system is that “the head of state could represent the nation with all its traditional pomp and splendour, while the head of government appeared in a more workaday role”

Still, the funerals of other recent prime ministers have tended to respect that distinction, typically featuring no more pageantry than might be accorded any prominent private citizen.  

In America, by contrast, presidents are legally entitled to state funerals, whose details are meticulously prescribed in the 133-page Army Pamphlet 1-1. “Regulations say up to four thousand military and civilian support personnel can take part in state funeral services …. And typically the sitting president announces government offices will close for the day of the funeral.” 

The president described in the Federalist was to have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” Yet there’s an unsettling, quasi-mystical orientation toward government at work in much of the ritual. While lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the president’s body is placed atop the Lincoln Catafalque: the funeral bier constructed for our 16th president–one of the holy relics of the American civil religion. Above him hangs the cathedral-like ceiling, which features the fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington,” painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. It depicts the first president “sitting amongst the heavens in an exalted manner, or in literal terms, ascending and becoming a god.” I generally find the so-called “New Atheists” insufferable, but we could use a little of their militant impiety when it comes to our presidential cult.  

George H.W. Bush’s funeral arrangements have been comparatively modest as these things go. So were Gerald Ford’s back in 2007. The man who proclaimed himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln” and toasted his own English muffins was praised once again for his humility because he skipped the horse-drawn processional. Instead, his 587-page funeral plan included a motorcade tour of Alexandria with stops at the World War II and Lincoln memorials and a military “missing man” flyover by 21 F-15E Strike Eagles at the burial in Grand Rapids.

The modern presidency, Cooke observes, smacks more of Caesar than of Coolidge. Here, as elsewhere, we could profit from Silent Cal’s example. “Coolidge’s will,” Carlson notes, “was just twenty-three words long, and his funeral ceremony lasted a mere five minutes.” In death, as in life, he was not a nuisance. 

Will Malay Muslims Accept Equality Before Law?

There is a heated debate in Malaysia these days on whether the country should affirm the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, the internal convention calls for eliminating all legal structures that favor one group over another. 

Malaysia is among a handful of countries that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty. One major reason is that many within the country’s ethnoreligious majority, the Muslim Malays, do not want to lose the privileges they have over the non-Muslim minorities such as the Chinese or Hindus. The Islamists also feel alarmed that accepting legal equality will lead to more freedom of religion, freedom of expression, or the intermarriage of Muslims and non-Muslims. 

Free Malaysia Today, a popular newssite with liberal tendencies, asked me what I think. I encouraged Malaysians to accept ICERD, and gave a reference that even the Islamists could not easily reject: The Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the Islamic Caliphate. Here is how Free Malaysia Today reported my take:

Mustafa Akyol, an award-winning author on contemporary Muslim issues, said Muslim groups who oppose the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD, should study the policies of past Islamic powers including the Ottoman caliphate with regards to equality.

“I would recommend that all those in Malaysia who oppose the ICERD on Islamic grounds read the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. It reads:

‘All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans, without distinction whatever faith they profess… [And] All Ottomans are equal in the eyes of the law. They have the same rights, and owe the same duties towards their country, without prejudice to religion.’”

The full story is available here: ”The Caliphate had ICERD, too

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