Thursday, January 17, 2008

David Frum: Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Review)

Author: David Frum.
Title: Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.
Publication: New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-358-51533-7, 214 pages, hardcover, indexed, 9 Chapters.

Mr. Frum is attempting to redefine the directions of conservatism so that it can meet the real needs of constituencies and voters, which have certain drifted away from the results of the current Bush administration’s strategy.

He makes a number or practical suggestions in a number of areas. For “smarter taxes” he discusses the idea of a consumption tax (the Bradford tax) and supports the idea that a consumption tax (instead of the income tax) could become progressive by starting with consumption at a particular level. He carefully notes the complications that can come from wholesale clubs. Likewise, he suggests that a carbon tax, on companies and at least indirectly on people, would then goad the market into developing really effective forms of clean energy. As things are now, he notes, oil is still the cheapest fuel, even with all the recent international price run-ups; there have to be fundamental policy changes before the market will support clean and green energy properly. He does support the idea of “green conservatism.” Like all conservatives, he is very concerned about rising and raises the prospect of future drastic cuts in social security benefits (since it had originally started as an old-age welfare program, not as a forced savings annuity), and suggests use of “USA Savings” accounts.

On the issue of dealing with radical Islam, he takes a very long view. European history shows many problems, centuries long, of “Christians” learning to accept democracy, and so does Chinese and Asian history (in fact, China is still an authoritarian, if much more prosperous now, state). So it should not be surprising if Muslims will experience the same difficulties, that could extend for decades or centuries. That is not by itself to give up on the idea of a more progressive Muslim world.

Likewise, he is appropriately critical of both our education (the fiasco of “No Child Left Behind,” whose intention is more admirable than its execution) and immigration policies. We need to insist on skill levels for more people who enter the country, and have much more realistic ways of increasing math and science performance among our students. That’s not new in itself. He has a chapter called “Keeing China Number 2” and here he gets into the more sensitive social issues. People who are relatively stable and prosperous should (in the environment of traditional marriage) have more children and larger families, he says. This is not out of some kind of Vatican morality, but somewhat a demographic necessity. He thinks that the reasons for fewer kids, especially in Europe, are not derived from self-indulgence, but rather from tax policies that hit families with children particularly hard. He suggests that per child tax credits be extended to people who pay no tax, and also adds that the alternative minimum tax, unintentionally perhaps, wipes out the deductions that families would normally get when they have more children. In Europe, he thinks that the social and retirement welfare policies are particularly vicious circle, taxing middle class families into childlessness. Some countries, like France and particularly Russia, have tried to reverse this recently. Furthermore, recent census reports show that the United States has actually increased its birth rate (but particularly among Hispanics), and some observers believe that Americans “like kids” more than many Europeans. That makes me wonder about another debate: mandatory paid family leave policies, which Europeans have but the United States does not.

He has a chapter “New Life for the Pro-Life” and provides a somewhat meandering discussion of the social values connected to the abortion and now end-of-life debates (he mentions the Terri Schiavo case as a watershed). He acknowledges that many people feel that modern cultural individualism has denigrated the value of motherhood or the social connections of family life. On gay marriage, he notes (as did Jonathan Rauch back in the 1990s, even as Rauch tried to promote the concept as a win-win idea) that even if gay people got the right to marry everywhere, relatively few might take advantage of it, outside of situations of specific need (like immigration, health care benefits). Indeed, a lot of heterosexuals don't want to take advantage of it, particularly in Tinselton (note media reports of Matthew McConaughey's "love baby"). Frum believes that a constitutional amendment providing a federal definition of marriage (as one man and one woman only) is unlikely to work, and politically risky for Republicans to pursue. Frum is more concerned about quasi-marriage (“civil union” or “domestic partnership”) arrangements (even among heterosexuals, and recognized in some states) as a threat to marriage than about recognizing gay marriage itself, but he recognizes that the mainstream public is coming to accept these arrangements. He does call for some visible government action, however, with the establishment of an “Office of Marriage and Children” even within the “Office of Public Health.” Some states, even liberal ones like Minnesota, have similar operations in their state governments.

Frum stays away from moralizing too much about the personal aspects of the marriage debate (remember how George Gilder wrote about it in the 1980s with “Men and Marriage”), or about lifestyle values (especially with the Internet). I didn’t see any discussion of national service, or of filial responsibility (which could have come up in conjunction with birthrate issues). However, he does note that Republicans, compare to Democrats, are more likely to live in a manner expressive of what most of us see as family values related to preserving lineage. He does note that Americans “condemn the sniggering cruelty” of the treatment of gays in the past, apparently as a part of collective family image; nevertheless, he notes that we need to recognize “the family was the greatest social welfare institution we have, for an equal chance in life for all American children” (p 111).

At one point, Frum notes the Maoist cultural revolution (in Red China in the 60s), that even tried to replaces people’s names with numbers, and forced intellectuals to soil themselves in the countryside as some sort of retributional moral purification. The far Left, it should be recalled, was, at one time, quite concerned with how “rich people” or “successful” people can justify deserving what they have (and the Left wanted to destroy all inherited wealth). That isn’t as commonly said today as it was forty years ago. But conservatives have always seen the strong family unit and absolute commitment to protecting human life (even when requiring sacrifices from others, as with eldercare or extreme disability in addition to the more touted concerns over pregnancy continuation) as necessary firewalls against social deterioration into this kind of ideological obsession. Liberty without accountability to others can lead to new, subtle schemes to marginalize people while pretending to promote freedom for everyone. The great “ism’s” of the past (and today) have all rationalized some sort of virtue that keeps people in certain places. (Mussolini, by the way, taxed bachelors punitively!) Strong middle class families are a necessary balance against this kind of thinking – but, again, remember that it’s very easy for privileged interest to abuse the concept of the family. Nothing about this is simple.

David Crary has an AP story today (Jan. 17, 2008) "U.S. Abortions at Lowest Rate Since 1974", here. A significant factor is fewer abortion clinics and better contraceptives and family planning information.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Daniel J. Solove: The Future of Reputation: gossip, rumor, and privacy on the internet (Review)

Author: Daniel J. Solove.
Title: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.
Publication: New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-12498-9. Introduction and 8 Chapters, 248 pages, hardcover. Amazon link.

George Washington University associate law professor has written a well-balanced, succinct, and badly needed treatise on a new social and quasi-legal problem that has developed in the last decade or so with the Internet.

As the media has reported a lot since around 2005, people are learning that others can get information about them online. Some of this has to do with hacks, scams and outright illegal activity. A much more subtle problem is that information that people post about themselves and that others post about them (often augmented by images and video) can be discovered by other family members, by current or prospective lawyers, even landlords. And, unlike the way things were in the past, such information can stay out there essentially forever unless some energy is expended in getting various persons and companies to remove it, and, in a global context, is much more likely to be misinterpreted.

The word for all of this is “reputation.” Even though we have come to perceive freedom individually, freedom exists within a social context because one of the main points of our lives is the interactions we have with each other, both inside the family and with the rest of the world. To have freedom, we need the law, but we also need reputation. Some people think we also need faith, but that’s a more personal take.

People whose jobs involve manipulating others – sales people or agents, but also health care professionals, teachers, ministers, military officers, trial lawyers, corporate executives, politicians (especially!) and the like, understand the importance of reputation well. People in the arts – writers, musicians, to some extent performers – and people whose jobs consist largely of individual contribution (computer programmers, maybe even composers) perhaps are less aware of this – but ultimately their work is important because it is designed to reach others somehow, so reputation becomes important to them, too. Reputation is that nebulous asset that makes others who do not know you individually interested in or at least willing to work with you. Its definition implies a paradox: even as a property of an individual, almost permanent, it affects others around the person, and some of it, almost like the position and speed of particles in quantum theory, must remain unmeasurable by specific means (like credit scores).

The author has a lot of practical suggestions for how to bring the law in line with the realities of the modern Internet. Most of these have to do with interpreting established statutory and common law tort concepts properly with online media. The law has experienced this situation before, as with the invention of the printing press, broadcast media, and the VCR. So it is again.

One of this most important suggestions is that employers (and I suppose landlords and even other future creditors) should be expected to follow notification rules when they check people online with search engines, just as they do when pulling credit reports and FICO scores. Agreed. The human resources “industry” needs to develop best practices on Internet “background checks,” and these need to comprise common sense rules of conduct for both employers and associates, with the rules carefully tailored to the job to be done. There is a real risk otherwise that Internet BI’s could become a new tool for forcing social conformity. Some companies have already set themselves up to manage online profiles of clients or of key persons in client companies. (For example, look at Ziggs.)

But it’s important for me, as the reader, to impart some additional context as to how I can use this perspective. One is to understand that reputation is somewhat a group as well as individual “property.” One place where reputation is particularly sensitive is the family. A half century ago, as I was coming of age, one of the worst things one could say about a person’s “reputation” was to accuse him or being gay – particularly for men. Thankfully much of that has changed now – however begrudgingly – in the western world, but certainly not in Muslim countries or among religious fundamentalists. Why was this such an issue? It seems perplexing to a society based on individualism and personal autonomy. One reason is that for much of history society has been essentially tribal. Families have been concerned with survival in an essentially hostile and indirectly competitive “Darwinian” world. Many men don’t have much opportunity for modern self-expression or global attention, but they expect to have a biological lineage – that’s the one thing that “everybody can do” unless somebody spoils it. Family strength was dependent on maintaining heirs – especially male ones. Think back to Biblical times – when the firstborn became the target during the Exodus. Taking the discussion beyond this – into religious and philosophical areas – is interesting but gets beyond “reputation” as Solove is presenting it.

One place where it ("reputation collectivism") still lives is the United States military – that old chestnut that became the notorious “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Unit cohesion (or even mission cohesion) as the military sees it is definitely a “reputation” issue. In a world where soldiers blog from Iraq, they have to be especially careful about what they say. The legal services organization that assists reserve and active duty soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen with this issue is Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). A somewhat related issue affects teachers – with the item being fitness to work with minors. A person can be perceived as unfit without doing or saying anything “objectively” wrong in the established application of the law because of the context in which a person’s statements (or statements made by others) can be taken. Sometimes, the identity of the speaker does matter. Particularly with issues like this, there is a historical track record of public shame being manipulated as a tool to "protect children" and "protect families."

The family issue reminds me, however, that in a practical world, one’s own reputation can affect other family members, and sometimes coworkers and neighbors, even, in the post 9/11 world, possibly their safety. This is potentially a very sensitive and hard to manage issue. Solove writes about the right of people to disclose facts about their own lives in stimulating public debate about a legitimate issue (and that could be gay rights). It’s controversial because facts about oneself will impute or imply facts about others associated with the person (often family members). He believes that the law does need to protect free speech in these cases, but the actual workout of an issue can be quite problematic sometimes. Likewise, he supports the idea that ISP’s and other facilitators need to be shielded from downstream liability for what their subscribers do or say (as they are now, by and large).

Another subtle problem stems from the way the Internet can make anyone a “celebrity” and confer what the speaker may believe is a right of appropriation (or “right of publicity,” which has normally applied only to established celebrities.) Wikipedia (which Solove discusses with respect to another issue – anonymity) has a good word for this – “notability.” Many people who grew up in less individualistic cultures feel that it is morally “wrong” for people to draw attention to themselves from the whole planet until they prove that they can take responsibility for others (have and raise a family). Yet that notion probably has very little legal importance any more.

There are some situations one can imagine that are indeed tricky, and would meet widely varying reactions from the public. Some people may not like the idea that another person mentions them on a that person's blog or website because of the "reputation" of that speaker, and they may fear it will "rub off." (We've seen this issue already with "unauthorized" hyperlinks, which judges have pretty much laughed out of court because of the normal "fair use" doctrine.) Others may fear their name coming up in combination with undesirable keywords in a search, even though the keywords are (when the file is read) actually about someone else, not them. This actually happened to me and created a significant problem when I was substitute teaching.

Solove does talk about the proper use of litigation to resolve potential reputation-threatening disputes. He thinks that the binary notion of privacy (which negates it in public places in current law) should change, and he thinks that sometimes anonymous lawsuits could be allowed (although one wonders about class action today). But, particularly with questions where the harm to reputation is nebulous and “in the eye of the beholder” (because of the target’s job, religion, or social or family situation, or maybe because a reference to a person is to activity that is long in the past and that should have aged out of the public eye) he believes that disputes should go through some sort of inexpensive mediation first. This sort of process already exists with domain name disputes (as specified by ICANN). It ought to be extended to “reputation infringement.”

To me, that suggests a new kind of job or career. People who are Internet-literate and who have a variety of other work experiences could (especially when “retiring”) be trained to help mediate these disputes as a “paralegal negotiators” – perhaps following the way experienced debt collectors negotiate down debt. Companies could be set up to do this. Michael Fertik 's Reputation Defender is certainly a start, but it seems to me that the real social need is for negotiation and mediation procedures, not just singing people up to watch online reputations (which for some people can admittedly take a lot of work). That also means that a new category of job could be created. I could certainly do that kind of job, but then the way I manage my own websites and blogs would become a real “conflict of interest” issue.

This book could be compared with Nancy Flynn’s “Blog Rules” (published in 2006 by the American Management Association and sold through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) with particularly attention to the growing effect of personal blogs on the workplace (even outside of social networking sites, which, it seems, are what called media attention to the problem around 2005 – leading employers to see personal blogs as like conversation or “gossip” [as in the CW TV series “Gossip Girl”] rather than “literature”). Tom Drugan, who has started a company called Naymz, has a PDF book “Not Just Your Space -- A College Student's Guide to Managing Online Reputation" (2006). Andrew Keen has a book “The Cult of the Amateur” reviewed in June on this blog.

I had written about this problem as far back as March 2000 with the white paper “White Paper: Employment Agreements regarding Employee-owned Intellectual Property: Conflicts of Interest, Trade Secrets, Non-Disclosure, Non-competition” here. In February 2005 I had proposed a blogging policy “Suggested Employee Blogging (Personal Weblog) and Personal Website Policy for Employers” myself (after researching what I could find about it going back to about 2001) here.

I have a separate blog entry on my TV reviews from December 26, 2007 about the coverage of "Reputation Defender" by network television, here.

This book was issued in paperback in late October 2008 by Yale University Press.

Dr. Solove has an earlier book from 2006 from NYU Press, "The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age."

Solove lecture from "AtGoogleTalks" on YouTube (54 min)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Primack & Abrams: The View from the Center of the Universe

Authors: Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams:
Title: The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Out Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos.
Publication: New York: Riverhead, 2006. Paper, 385 pages, indexed. ISBN 978-1-59448-255-7. In three parts, ten chapters.

The authors have appeared on the McLaughlin group, and they seem to express as broad and objective view of cosmology as is possible. They explain the various components of the universe as different levels, drawn on a Cosmic Density Pyramid. Some of these are various kinds of clusters of galaxies, down to the galaxies and stars (and black holes), solar systems, planets, and then the stuff of ordinary matter and energy. It takes a lot of effort to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity, and a theory called supersymmetry has been advanced to do that. Concepts called dark matter and dark energy are part of the universe that we don’t relate to directly but are necessary parts of the big picture. Dark matter may be related to neutrinos – and I remember a high school physics teacher back in 1960 saying they have no rest mass. That’s more or less the case, if a simplification.

Perhaps the central concept of their book is the place of terrestrial life in the universe. Biological entities are mid-sized and “right sized,” relative to the scale of other things in the universe, for biological processes to work. (That has a lot to do with the "center" which is symbolic and not geometric.) But for creatures like human beings (or perhaps bonobo chimps or dolphins or orcas) to have evolved over the 14 billion years of the history of the universe, and 5 billion years of earth, there has to have occurred a long sequence of catastrophes and rebirths, letting consciousness evolve as a tool of reproductive advantage, almost in a thermodynamic sense.

That’s what makes finding other intelligent life, as we normally present it in science fiction, so problematic. In calculus there is a theorem called l’Hopital’s Rule, where one differentiates the numerator and denominator of a rational function and tries taking the limit of a quotient, to get at the tendency of a process that otherwise is unknown. Trying to estimate the probability of life like ours somewhere else is like that. We keep differentiating and taking limits and probably don’t make much progress, because of the range of scales involved. Relativity gives us some paradoxes that might allow trips of hundreds of light years within a lifetime (time dilation), to return many generations later, presenting social and political problems unimaginable now (except to science fiction writers). But the likelihood of finding civilizations comparable to ours even within a hundred light years or so seems guarded, to say the least, according to the authors, who survey the whole science of other solar systems. Rather, it’s more productive to take on a more “spiritual” view of our centrality in the universe, in terms of size. Just as the atoms that make us up are individually unimportant (and the atoms themselves are “made up” or probabilities or energies that seem irrelevant), individual creatures could be building blocks of larger wholes in the cosmos. One could imagine a theology from this: “Heaven” could involve coming into contact with everything that makes the biggest objects in the universe work the way they do. But one would have to earn the right to be there. This would get into religious or ethical concepts like karma and salvation -- and I think a lot of people abuse the idea of "salvation by grace", by expecting others to let them off the hook.

This also leads to some view of moral philosophy. In concept, the authors seem to accept the idea of public morality. One must not engage in behaviors or goals that undermine the long term integrity of the group. One must reconcile following one's own goals with the viability of the entire family and all of civilization. On a local level, this could sound like traditional religious ideas of “family values” or tribal or blood loyalty. But the authors suggest that we need a much broader framework in which to contemplate our moral thinking, although they are not real specific. Their concerns are more about taking care of the planet, and leaving it a suitable home for future generations, than about loyalty to one’s specific children. People can conceive of the idea that their own children should have better lives than they did – but not what descendants millennia down the road will be like, and those are the time scales we must deal with. The authors consider our civilization a treasure for the universe, and probably near the end of its rapid growth; it must find a new kind of stability and steadier growth. That observation has intricate consequences for how we look at fertility, population replacement and family size -- the planet may be at well over half its carrying capacity now, but human beings must continue to be born and grow up.

In 1968, I remember seeing the film "2001: A Space Odyssey" and wondering how long it would take to generate real space travel. 2001 turned out to be a very different year from what was shown in the movie. But in the 1990s something else remarkable happened: the Internet was made available to the public, allowing a new topology (or measure) of communication that I had never imagined when growing up.

Perhaps the larger structures in the universe (the galaxies, quasars, etc) express consciousness in a way that somehow parallels how biological structures express them in our familiar world. But we will have to earn the right to tap in to this kind of consciousness. We can fail, and we can lose it.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Ben Stein and Phil DeMuth: "Yes, You Can Still Retire Comfortably"

Authors: Ben Stein and Phil DeMuth.
Title: Yes, You Can Still Retire Comfortably! The Baby Boom Retirement Crisis and How to Beat It.
Publication: Carlsbad, CA, New Beginnings Press, 2007. Paper, 220 pages, indexed. ISBN 1-4019-0318-5. 11 Chapters.

The book contains plenty of graphs and pie charts (enough to please Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Rendition”) and makes a sensible argument as to how to prepare for retirement. Simply put, take advantage of compound interest. Understand exponential mathematics (a lot of people don’t). And save.

The authors admit that increasing savings might not work that well if everybody did it. But people who do will have an enormous advantage in financial security as they approach retirement.

The authors are pessimistic about almost all of the institutional fixes proposed for social security reform and pension reform, even the privatization proposed by the Bush administration and various neo-conservatives. Early on, the authors establish a sharp edge by noting that social security "welfare" programs for old age were established in an era when life expectancies were less because of what we see today as bad behaviors -- cigarette smoking and unhealthful diets, but also unsafe working conditions and war. Ironically, as society took on more individualistic values and increased life expectancies, social programs intended to protect lives became less stable and effective.

But it is indeed the social tone of the book that is interesting. Obviously, the authors are conservatives, and as the book progresses the tone turns more technical and less preachy. But in the first chapter, “The 21 Basic Rules of Retirement”, one of the recommendations is to “get and stay married to a sensible person.” Later they come to terms with the legitimate possibility of a “partner.” They also are big on home ownership, because homeowners are more likely to save. They provide some statistics on the relative net worths of homeowners and renters.

The book, however, was written largely before the seriousness of the subprime mortgage crisis became apparent. Homeowners still have relinquished valuable cash as down payments or risked it as earnest money before securing financing. And an economy that over-encourages residential borrowing is encouraging too much debt – which is exactly what the subprime crisis shows. Real estate, while the trend over many years is up, goes up and down like everything else. It took years for Texas to recover after the late 1980s bust, associated with the savings and loan scandals then and with sudden increase in Saudi oil production after Reagan deregulation in the 1980s. In many cities, an over-emphasis on home ownership tends to make most rental neighborhoods concentrated with low income people. The authors do give good advise in explaining the advantages of reverse mortgages for many seniors (over home equity loans).

There is supposed to be some moral good in doing without the social experience that goes with an overpriced Starbuck's latte, when you could be saving for a down payment. That seems to take things too far, when home ownership usually means its own kind of debt.

The authors make other somewhat controversial observations, such as that most people who get laid off from their jobs do so because they didn’t get along with others at work. That seems debatable given economic realities of globalization.

The authors don’t mention filial responsibility laws, which I believe could become a sudden political controversy, and they spend little effort on long term care insurance, which again is important to family planning (for both seniors and their adult children).

Update: March 10, 2008

As an example of a "layoff" that is really a firing of inefficient workers with some degree of publicly visible prejudice, check out the Washington Post story March 8, 2008 by V. Dion Haynes and Yolanda Woodlee, "D.C. Schools Chief Fires 98 Workers
Largest System Dismissal in a Decade Is Part of Pledge to Improve Efficiency," link here.