Friday, March 01, 2002

Well, looking all over all that stuff below, it's been a depressing week of postings. Time to step back and take the long view. How will this all be remembered in seventy years? Consider the Harding memorial.

Thursday, February 28, 2002

Techies like to complain about Microsoft products, but some of their useful features wouldn't be found in anybody else's product. The EU recently released the text of of a proposed directive allowing for software patents, and because it was released as a Microsoft Word document, we know who last edited the thing --- Francisco Mingorance, a top lobbyist for the Business Software Alliance.

If that sort of legislative process appeals to you, you'll love the SSSCA. This bill, being championed by Senator Fritz Hollings (D-Disney) (hearings today!), would require all "interactive digital devices" to employ "certified security technologies" which would "protect" digital content. The definition of "interactive digital device" is as broad as can be imagined:

The term "interactive digital device" means any machine, device, product, software, or technology, whether or not included with or as part of some other machine, device, product, software, or technology, that is designed, marketed or used for the primary purpose of, and that is capable of, storing, retrieving, processing, performing, transmitting, receiving, or copying information in digital form.

In other words, all computer software would need to have copyright cops embedded.

Where this gets really fun is the process by which the security technologies get certified. After the bill gets passed, the electronics and software manufacturers get a year or so to negotiate with "representatives of copyright owners" about security standards. If those negotiations conclude, the Secretary of Commerce is required by the bill to adopt whatever they come up with as recommendations, which acquire the force of law. So, in effect, this bill would explicitly delgate regulatory authority to large corporations.

On the other hand, if a year goes by and the electronics and software industries haven't knuckled under, the Secretary is required by the bill to initiate rulemaking which will give the copyright holders what they want.

Do I exaggerate? Well, slightly --- if the parties "appear to be negotiating in good faith", the Secretary can grant the electronics and software industries a six-month reprieve. But only one. Aside from that, if you don't think it's really that bad, I'd invite you once again to read the text of the bill.

Disney thinks this is "an exceedingly moderate and reasonable approach". It's good to know they're not going to extremes.

Enron-related stories keep piling up in the newspapers. Most of them aren't news; one story about the lifestyles of the rich and larcenous, Ken Lay's close relationship with Dubya (and the political favors it brought him), or yet another Fastow scheme to bury a loan on the balance sheet as anything, anything but debt, looks pretty much like another.

Here's a brief roundup of stories that at least present new variations on the common themes:

An Enron employee's letter to the California congressional delegation claims that during the California energy crisis, Enron traders created artificial shortages by artificially congesting transmission lines. I've seen allegations before of market manipulations by other companies, but this is the first I've seen of manipulation tied to Enron directly.

While stiffing laid-off employees on their compensation, Enron has paid its executives yet another round of retention bonuses. The theory is that the company is paying these people not to leave --- never mind that some recipients of the first round of $55 million in "retention bonuses" spent most of the time for which they were "retained" lining up other jobs --- and some of the biggest winners were the very folks who wrecked the company in the first place.

Lastly, here's one bit of Jeff Skilling's literally incredible testimony before the Senate which hasn't been written up in the stories I've seen. Skilling has consistently defended the company's financial reports as complete, correct, and transparent. But on at least one occasion when a reporter asked sharp questions about them, Skilling was unable to answer. He didn't understand them himself --- perhaps understandable in light of the earlier bizarre exchange with Sen. Boxer in which Skilling, a Harvard MBA, claimed not to know whether it is proper for a company to use manipulations of its own stock to alter its financial statements...

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

So, Iraq is part of an "axis of evil". Dick Cheney says that they are actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction. No red-blooded American would trade with scoundrels like that --- unless they could disguise the deal by shunting it through a French subsidiary. Among the American companies that worked these deals over the past few years was Halliburton, whose CEO over much of that time was Dick Cheney.

It's all a matter of putting the best face on things. It's as natural as the Pentagon's decision to give movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and ABC's entertainment division broad access to war zones to produce a reality show, but to deny the same access to ABC News. They just prefer Bruckheimer's reality.

Reality is a tricky thing, you see. When Dubya recently gave a speech in Japan, the State Department and several news organizations thought they heard him say that

for a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times.

Which would be a strange thing for him to say, what with all the unpleasantness around 1940 that got his father shot down over the Pacific. But, evidently, they were mistaken; in the White House transcript of the same speech, that sentence reads

for half a century now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times.

They're not like the Clinton administration. They don't lie. They just do their best to shape the truth.

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Libertarians argue for a society in which people solve their problems by making whatever commercial bargains they can, and the government takes an enforcement role, if that. The more radical among them suggest that society would be best off without any government at all, with nothing but private trade to regulate their interactions.

As it happens, there are large sections of the globe where there isn't any government, including the "tribal areas" of Pakistan, where the Pakistani government itself is happy to tell you its laws do not extend. And sure enough, we find forms of commerce that most governments in the decadent West would, in their brute, statist way, interfere with:

Mr. Arbab fingers his prayer beads as he gives a short history of the girl. Not only is she a virgin, he notes, but she is "untouched," meaning that she has not had anal sex with her previous master --- a common practice. The fact that the girl is "untouched," combined with her lighter skin and blue-green eyes, makes her particularly prized.

The bidding starts quickly. About 15 minutes into the bidding, one of the buyers asks for an inspection. The elderly woman removes the girls tunic, fingers the childs breasts, and then shines a flashlight into her open mouth to show that she has a good set of teeth. Bidding resumes with a certain intensity; some of the men can be seen rubbing themselves.

Of the 15 or so girls sold that evening, only four were "untouched." All were virgins, because, as Arbab said, "I only buy the best." And he makes piles of money doing it. Though his agents will buy the girls for between $80 to $100 at the borders, the price at the auction was considerably higher. The 14-year-old was sold for 165,000 Pakistani rupees, or about $2750. I heard it whispered that the girl was going to Dubai (presumably to become a member of a harem). Others were not so lucky. Another girl, a tall 18-year-old virgin with long black hair and light eyes, was sold to a prostitution ring in Lahore. Though a virgin, she had been "touched," and so sold for $2450. Although men at the auction ostensibly are paying for the right to marry the girls, few if any do. Most of the girls become prostitutes; the lucky become domestic help.

These arrangements are so much more convenient than state-granted marriage licenses in a variety of ways:

According to dozens of buyers interviewed, the girls are disposable --- and most don't live to the age of 30. When asked in what way the girls are disposable, the men shrug and smile.

The place conforms to the anarcho-libertarian ideal in other ways as well:

After walking down the steps into the main hall, buyers are guided to spots on a floor covered with dark-red geometrically patterned Afghan carpets. There is a foot-high dais in the middle of the room and a side door at the far end. Pillows serve as seats at low-slung tables dominated by hookahs ..., pots of green tea, and plates of dates and pistachios.

The guests --- everyone is a buyer --- gradually fill the room. ... Everyone is asked to leave weapons in the anteroom on the way into the hall, but from the way some sit, it's clear that there are still plenty of weapons in the room by the time the auction begins.

How genteel. An armed society is a polite society.

Not to put too fine a touch on it, these are slave markets (which also, by the way, buy and sell young buys for use as camel drivers).

You'd think this would be one case where even hard-core libertarians would respect the right of the government to stick its nose in, if libertarianism has anything to do with liberty. The liberty of the slaves is clearly at risk here. But the "Johnny Student" collective on Libertarian Samizdata seems to have, how shall I say, a more nuanced position concerning the most famous case of that sort of intervention. They recently described their experiences in attempting to convince college history classes that, in their own words:

1. Confederacy is a system of government that gives more power to the states or local government and less power to the federal or higher levels of government. America is a federalist society, whereas, Switzerland is an example of a confederacy.


5. After Lincoln's nearly 50/50 election there was a great tension between the North and the South about the role of the federal government (Lincoln wanted more federal government, which the Southerners opposed).

6. The US Civil War started over the role of the state versus the role of the federal government - not slavery.

And so, in effect, the South were the minarchist good guys. Perhaps they think Confederate political speeches sounded something like this ...

Now, this heah conflict isn't really about slavery puh se. Why, I own three hundred slaves mahself, and I'd free 'em all tomorrow, 'ceptin' they all like things exactly how they are. I know because that's what they tell me.

The problem heah is that the govuhnment in Washington City is claiming the right to regulate slavery. If that can be allowed, wheah will it stop? What would be next? Federal standards fo' the purity of drinking water? Oppressive gangs of regulatuhs swarming over slaughterhouses tryin' to prevent the sale of rotten meat? A federal agency spending immense amounts of money on some bizarre scheme fo' "electrical power" in the Tennessee Valley?

Ah know this seems like a vision from a nightmare, but that is where Federal regulation of slavery might lead. They might even try to give women the vote. I know it sounds insane, but if the gummint can regulate slavery, then nothing, nothing else is beyond the realm of possibility.

...instead of this, from a speech delivered by future C.S.A. Secretary of State Robert Toombs to the Georgia legislature:

In 1790 we had less than eight hundred thousand slaves. Under our mild and humane administration of the system they have increased above four millions. The country has expanded to meet this growing want, and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, have received this increasing tide of African labor; before the end of this century, at precisely the same rate of increase, the Africans among us in a subordinate condition will amount to eleven millions of persons. What shall be done with them? We must expand or perish. We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slavetrade, are both deaf and blind to the history of the last sixty years. All just reasoning, all past history, condemn the fallacy. The North understand it better - they have told us for twenty years that their object was to pen up slavery within its present limits - surround it with a border of free States, and like the scorpion surrounded with fire, they will make it sting itself to death.

But does Toombs discuss the primacy of State law vis-a-vis laws passed by the Federal government? Why, indeed he does, in the very next paragraph:

All the courts of the United States, Federal and State, from the Supreme Court of the United States to the Justice Courts of all the States whose actions have ever come under my notice, construed this Constitution to mean and intend the rendition of fugitive slaves by law of Congress, which might be aided, not thwarted, by State legislation, until the decision of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin held otherwise, and that decision was unanimously overruled by Northern and Southern judges in the Supreme Court, and which Court, in the same case, unanimously affirmed the constitutionality of the [Fugitive Slave] act of 1850. But these acts were not only annulled by the abolition Legislatures, but annulled under circumstances of atrocity and aggravation unknown to the legislation of any civilized people in the world. Some of them punish us with penitentiary punishment as felons for even claiming our own slaves within their limits, even by his own consent; others by ingenious contrivances prevent the possibility of your sustaining your rights in their limits, where they seek to compel you to go, and then punish you by fine and infamous punishments for asserting your rights and failing to get them. This is the fidelity of our brethren (!) to their plighted faith their oft-repeated oaths!

So, there you have it, from the (well, a) horse's mouth: a proximate cause of the Civil War was that the South insisted on the Federal government's right to preempt State law in the North.

It's true that after the Civil War, many Southerners justified their actions in terms of States' rights --- because arguments in favor of slavery as a moral institution had lost their currency. But the Southron side came to that conviction late. C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis and vice-president Alexander Stephens pushed the "States' Rights" line after the war. But before the war, Stephens famously declared that Jefferson's vision of slavery as "the rock on which the old Union would split" was now "realized fact", adding

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [to the equality of races]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Stephens' speech also enumerated a number of advantages of the Confederate Constitution over that of the United States. A different construction of "states' rights" is not among them; the closest he gets is to point out the weaker power of the Confederate government to regulate interstate commerce. And as for Davis, when he was leaving the U.S. Senate, after Mississippi seceded, he paused in his farewell address, to recount and repeat his advice to aggrieved parties in Massachusetts when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed: that the Constitution gave that kind of power to the federal government, that as long as they stayed in the Union they'd just have to lump it, and if they didn't like it, they ought to leave it.

When a couple of pomo scholars wrote an article last fall which implicitly equated the "oppressiveness" of the Western bikini with the Taliban burqa, they were roundly derided. And they deserved to be. If they were trying to raise awareness of the way unhealthy ideals pushed through the media do in fact drive some vulnerable girls to do stupid, self-destructive things to their bodies, then they failed; they only succeeded in making themselves and their cause look ridiculous. "Johnny Student"'s view of the causes of the Civil war --- that it was not so much slavery per se, as the power of the federal government to get rid of it --- is just as warped.

It would be nice to think that libertarianism had something to do with liberty. But if it does, then "Johnny Student" is awfully confused...

Monday, February 25, 2002

It seems that a lot of bloggers are belatedly discovering my fine Commonwealth's current governor, Jane Swift. They know her only as the woman who upheld the sentence of the last prisoner in the notorious Fells' Acres "ritual child abuse" case, twentieth century Massachusetts' answer to the Salem Witch trials. But she's so much more.

Since Bush nominated the elected governor, Paul Cellucci, to the vital and important post of Ambassador to Canada, Swift (his former running mate) has been presiding over the affairs of the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts with the perpetually befuddled air of a third grader in a school play who is achingly eager to please, but doesn't see why her doggy can't join in the fun, and just can't remember her lines.

Even before acquiring the corner office, Swift entertained the public with such Stupid Politician Tricks as the use of a state helicopter for personal business, having aides from her office babysit her kid (it was entirely voluntary, she protested; the kid was so cute no aide could resist!), and a sinecure teaching appointment at Suffolk University Law School (a very short walk from the State House) which involved very little work. Her marriage license application failed to report two of her husband's three previous marriages, apparently to try to keep her budding political career from stumbling over awkward questions about them. Which worked, in a way; nobody cared about the divorces, though the local press had plenty of questions about lies on a public document.

As acting Governor, she has raised eyebrows by commuting three hours each way from her home in the Berkshires, near the state's western border, refusing to move closer to Boston, even though this arrangement obviously must be placing a little stress on a family which includes her well-publicized infant kid. (She says the commute is working time, since someone else is driving the SUV). September 11th threw unwelcome light on the culture of political patronage at Massport, the agency which runs Logan airport, among other things, and Swift's connections to it.. Her other achievements include a ridiculous catfight with two members of the state Turnpike authority over a toll increase, which she wants and they don't; she's trying to fire them, and they won't go. I actually think she's right about this one, but the way it has played out in the courts is just embarrassing.

And yet, Swift is only one of many striking characters in Massachusetts state government. Where she (and her predecessor, Cellucci, a nonentity who will mostly be remembered for proclaiming October to be Italian-American Heritage month) created a power vacuum, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, the dictatorial Tom Finneran, has rushed in to fill it.

Finneran has, in recent years, been giving his own state of the State address, billed as the "Speaker's address to the citizens of the Commonwealth", to complement the governor's. Finneran's address generally gets more attention from people who actually care what state government is going to do, since Finneran controls the Massachusetts House with an iron hand, and no legislation can pass without meeting his approval. In public, he defers to small-d democratic sensibilities by using "the members" as his royal "we", but members of the House who oppose him in any significant way generally find themselves pondering their new, worthless committee assignments in a dank, windowless basement office.

So, for example, when the voters passed a referendum mandating public funding of campaigns for state office, Finneran's house simply refused to fund it. A state court recently ruled that the legislature had to either fund the bill or repeal it. Finneran's response, so far, has been to pass a "compromise" bill which would have the effect of providing some public funding --- enough for the two candidates for minor state office who had gone through the motions needed to qualify for funds when none were available, but not enough for, say, opponents to his pet house members.

Finneran is also a large-D democrat, but he isn't expected to run in this year's election for governor. Presumably, he has looked over the flyweights who are already in that field (see John Ellis's summation), and decided that there's just no point; whether the corner office goes to the Republican Swift, or to one of the Democrats, he'll still be able to run state government without interference from pretty much anybody.

The Libertarian response to all of this (next up, if I really want to lose readers, Boston's Mayor, "Mumbles" Menino) is to point out that government attracts people of, how shall I say, slight merit, and that that's a reason for getting rid of it. They're wrong.

What's right is that people of slight merit are attracted to money and power. And not just in government. Congressman John LeBoutillier recalls how a classmate named Jeff in the Harvard Business School responded when asked what he would do if he discovered that his company's products were dangerous. The response? "I'd keep making and selling the product. My job as a businessman is to be a profit center and to maximize return to the shareholders. It's the government's job to step in if a product is dangerous." Jeff Skilling went on to put that philosophy in practice as CEO of Enron.

The sleazebags will always be with us. They're an integral part of the human condition. In the public sector, with sunshine laws and public record requirements, at least they're easier to keep an eye on. In Libertopia, with everything in the private sector, they'd be harder to track.

And why deny ourselves the entertainment?