Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

President Obama Needn’t Go to SXSW…

In his weekly address last Saturday, President Obama touted the importance of technology and innovation, and his plans to visit the popular South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He said he would ask for “ideas and technologies that could help update our government and our democracy.” He doesn’t need to go to Texas. Simple technical ideas with revolutionary potential continue to await action in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the White House’s Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America included a commitment to develop and publish a machine-readable government organization chart. It’s a simple, but brilliant step forward, and the plan spoke of executing on it in a matter of months.

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

One of the most important ideas and technologies that could help update our government and democracy is already a White House promise. In fact, it’s essentially required by law.

Uber Not to Blame for Kalamazoo Shooting

By Alexander Torrenegra from Secaucus, NJ (New York Metro), United States - On my first @Uber ride in Bogota heading to a Startup Weekend. Priceless easiness and safety. I love disruptive innovation., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37982760An Uber driver is accused of killing six people and wounding two others in a shooting rampage that took place in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Saturday. The victims seem to have been picked at random and were shot at three different locations. An unnamed source told CNN that the suspected killer, Jason Dalton, completed rides in between the shootings, which took place over a seven-hour period. It might be tempting to think in the wake of the Kalamazoo shooting that Uber should reform its background check system, but this would be an overreaction to a problem a different background check process wouldn’t have solved. 

Uber screens its drivers by checking county, state, and federal criminal records. As I explained in my Cato Institute paper on ridesharing safety, Uber is oftentimes stricter than taxi companies in major American cities when it comes to preventing felons and those with a recent history of dangerous driving from using its platform. And Dalton did pass Uber’s background check.

However, it’s important to keep in mind a disturbing detail: according to Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley, the suspected shooter did not have a criminal record and was not known to the authorities. In fact, Dalton, a married father of two, does not seem to have prompted many concerns from anyone. The Washington Post reports that Dalton’s neighbors noticed “nothing unusual” about him, although the son of one neighbor did say that he was sometimes a “hothead.”

That an apparently normal man with no criminal history can murder six people is troubling, but it’s hard to blame Uber for this. It’s not clear what changes Uber could make to its background check system in order to prevent incidents like the Kalamazoo shooting. What county court record, fingerprint scan, or criminal database would have been able to tell Uber that a man with no criminal record would one day go on a shooting rampage?

The Kalamazoo shooting is a tragedy, but it shouldn’t distract from the fact that Uber and other ridesharing companies like Lyft have features such as driver and passenger ratings as well as ETA (estimated time of arrival) sharing that make their rides safer than those offered by traditional competitors.

With the information we have it looks like Dalton could have passed a background check to have been a taxi driver or a teacher. While perhaps an unnerving fact, criminal background checks cannot predict the future, whether they are used to screen potential school bus drivers, police officers, or rideshare drivers. 

States Optimistic About Economic Futures Are More Economically Free

New data from Gallup suggests that residents in US states with freer markets are more optimistic about their state’s economic prospects. In their 50-State Poll, Gallup asked Americans what they thought about the current economic conditions in their own state as well as their economic expectations for the future. North Dakota (92%), Utah (84%), and Texas (82%) top the list as states with the highest share of residents who rate their current economic conditions as excellent or good.  In stark contrast, only 18% of Rhode Island residents, 23% of Illinois residents, and 28% of West Virginians rate their state’s economic conditions as excellent or good. Similarly Americans most optimistic about their state’s economic futures include Utah (83%) and Texas (77%) while states at the bottom include Illinois (34%) and West Virginia (36%).

What explains these stark differences in economic evaluations and expectations across US states? Could differences across states in economic freedom, such as government regulations on business, tax rates, government spending, and property rights protection, be part of the story?

Figure 1: Relationship Between State Economic Freedom Scores
and Residents’ Evaluations of Current Economic Conditions

 

 Source: Economic Freedom Index 2011, Freedom in the 50 States; Gallup 50-State Poll 2015

Bitcoin Governance as Competition

A few weeks ago, in a post entitled, “The Politics of Non-Political Money,” I talked about the Bitcoin blocksize debate as surfacing “politics” in the Bitcoin ecosystem. Important protocol and software development projects require people of disparate views and plans to come together over common standards and code. My thesis in that post was simply that good behavior is good politics because it builds credibility. Some differ, and many—it should be no surprise—aren’t taking my advice. But the precedents set in the blocksize debate are important for the future of Bitcoin, for other cryptocurrencies, and for similar projects that may offer alternatives to governmental monetary and administrative systems.

The politics are intense, there are ways that Bitcoin governance is like government, and proposals to fork the software are kind of like constitutional amendments. But I’m increasingly comfortable thinking of Bitcoin governance as a market phenomenon. Specifically, groups with differing visions are competing to win the favor of Bitcoin miners and nodes, so that their vision, if it prevails, can carry the Bitcoin project forward.

Just Give Us the Data! End-of-Term Org-Chart Edition

Public oversight of government and internal managment could both improve dramatically with an authoritative, machine-readable representation of what the federal government is. Right now, there isn’t a list of all of the federal government’s agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects. That’s a big part of why the government is run so badly and so impervious to change. The government is illegible, even to many insiders.

Happily, the Obama Administration recently promised to produce a machine-readable federal government organization chart. And it promised to do so in a matter of months. That’s something the administration can do to leave a lasting legacy and fulfill an important part of his promise of more transparent government, something we touted here in a 2008 policy forum, Just Give Us the Data!

DHS Lies, State Power Dies

The National Conference of State Legislatures recently held a briefing on REAL ID, the U.S. national ID law, for state legislators that is both fascinating and strange. It is fascinating to see Department of Homeland Security officials prevaricate so openly before state officials about what this national ID law does. And it is strange to see the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group that nominally represents the interests of states, working with the federal government to erode state power.

DHS officials evidently see it as a priority to avoid the impression that REAL ID compliance creates a national identification system. DHS’s PowerPoint presentation to NCSL, echoed in the oral briefing, insists that REAL ID “[d]oes not create a national ID card, a Federal database of driver information, or new Federal access to state data.”

The Politics of Non-Political Money

An early trope about Bitcoin was that it was ‘non-political’ money. That’s a tantalizing notion, given the ugliness of politics. But a monetary system is a social system, technology is people, and open source software development requires intensive collaboration—particularly around a protocol with strong network effects. When the group is large enough and the subject matter important enough, human relations become politics. I think that is true even when it’s not governmental (read: coercive) power at stake.

Bitcoin’s politics burst into public consciousness last week with the “whiny ragequit” of developer Mike Hearn. In a Medium post published ahead of a New York Times article on his disillusionment and departure from the Bitcon scene, Mike said Bitcoin has “failed,” and he discussed some of the reasons he thinks that.

As do most people responding to the news, I like Mike and I think he’s right to be frustrated. But he’s not right on the merits of Bitcoin, and his exit says more about one smart, impatient man than it does about this fascinating protocol.

But there is much to discover about how governance of a project like Bitcoin will proceed so that politics (in the derogatory sense) can be minimized. Stable governance will help Bitcoin compete with governmental monetary and record-keeping systems. Chaotic governance will retard it. We just need to figure out what “stable governance” is.