I am an immigrant (from Germany). I work in tech (as an investor and previously as an entrepreneur). I support comprehensive immigration reform. That part is pretty simple — it would be hypocritical to argue that something that I have benefitted from tremendously should be less accessible to others. But I have largely chosen to stay out of this particular fight because the arguments on both sides have been too narrow with a lot of needlessly heated rhetoric.
I am quite convinced that the actual impact here will be less than people expect it to be in either direction. The reason is that there are other forces at work that are a lot stronger. Graduate students from places like India and China are returning to their home countries in far greater numbers not only because we have made it harder to stay post 9/11 but also because those countries have rapidly growing domestic economies which offer a lot of opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum of the labor market the far bigger deal is the pressure of technology on wages. I have written about this extensively.
The twin forces of globalization and technology will have far more impact on our economy and society than the changes we are making to immigration law.
Our elected representatives are busy at work coming up with misguided laws. Leading the charge once again is Lamar Smith, this time proposing to replace peer review of NSF grants with congressional criteria (Congress of course is not exactly known for its scientists). Now that is not to say that we shouldn’t look into how NSF funding works and propose changes to it. For instance, with crowdfunding platforms for science like Mircoryza emerging, it would be interesting to see if these can be used to make the NSF process more transparent and even route some NSF money through these types of platforms.
Another misguided effort comes from a state senator in California who is proposing to require registration of 3D printers because they could be used to print guns. This comes on the heels of the US government requiring a website to remove the files for a 3D printable gun. Why is this misguided even though I have been calling in general for more regulation of gun ownership? Because regulation should be about making it harder on the margin to obtain high performance weapons for the average person, not a one off weapon for the determined. It is the same reason why locking your front door makes sense even though you have a large glass window next to it.
I am somewhat hopeful that neither one of these will go anywhere. Still the rate at which legislation like this gets suggested or actually introduced is a good argument for having shorter sessions or otherwise limiting how many bills lawmakers can propose!
If ever we needed a reminder that technology can both make our lives better and more terrifying this week provided plenty of them. Pressure cookers for cooking and bomb making. Fertilizer for agriculture and explosions (sadly also used in the Oklahoma City bombing). Social media for collaborative (re)search and public witch hunts. This is why we need values. Without being guided by strong values we will not enjoy the benefits of technology but will be leaving in fear of it instead.
I was planning to write more on cyber security but then yesterday I read this harrowing letter from a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo). I don’t take his claims about his lack of involvement at face value. It is irrelevant. He has been held for a shocking 11 years and 3 months without a trial. That goes against everything we as a country should stand for.
I wrote in 2010 that “I wish we had the courage to go ahead with a shutdown of Guantanamo, even if that results in releasing people who will want to attack us.” I believe that today more than ever. If we want long term security not just for ourselves but for the world, we have to stop believing in drones and start by leading with the values that we want others to embrace.
Gitmo Must Go.
I have written previously about cyber security and cyber defense topics that have become more acute in the wake of several large scale attacks on banks and other companies. Unfortunately, law makers in DC are reacting the only way they seem to know how: by further broadening laws that are already overreaching and yet ineffective at the same time. In particular the House Judiciary committee is proposing changes to make the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) even more draconian. As a quick reminder, this is the act under which Aaron Swartz was charged.
Why is the CFAA ineffective? Because most of the attack activity comes from other jurisdictions. Yes, there is some of it here domestically but we have had relatively little problem tracking down folks and applying existing law.
Why is the CFAA overly broad already? Because it elevates terms of service violations to criminal offenses with significant jail penalties. And we all know that nobody reads the Terms of Service and that they tend to include the kitchen sink.
How is this about to get worse? The new draft makes this broadness much worse by adding the possibility of racketeering charges, making intent — not just actual breach — punishable, further increasing penalties and expanding the definition of “exceeding authorized access.” Here is a good summary of the changes.
Why does this matter? Because it is turning activities that many of us engage in nearly every day into crimes and putting a huge damper on important innovation. As an example of the former, I frequently when checking out a startup that has auto-increment ID numbers in their user URLs will see how many users they actually have by trying out higher ID numbers. Under the CFAA this is punishable with jail time. In fact, any kind of manual change to a URL in the browser bar become basically illegal. Now imagine trying to build a new piece of technology that does web scraping or spidering or tries to interact with a site on behalf of a user. Basically, the CFAA makes this kind of innovation illegal.
A while back I had stopped worrying about bee Colony Collapse Disorder because it had been out of the news for a while. From this morning’s New York Times it seems like I was wrong. Apparently if anything the rate of bee colonies collapsing has accelerated. This could turn into a very serious threat to the food supply for anything that needs pollination by bees which includes many fruits and vegetables.
One of the potential culprits here are genetically modified plants that include so-called neonicotinoids. The largest producer of such plants is Monsanto. And that makes a provision that was “slipped” into the Agricultural Appropriations Bill so pernicious: it protects the makers of genetically modified seeds from litigation related to health risks.
I am not against progress and I am not even against genetic modification in general (although I am highly suspect of it), but letting commercial entities get all the upside and carry none of the risk is a terrible idea no matter what you believe otherwise. We need bees, but we can do just fine without Monsanto. If you feel similarly outraged, go sign the petition!
I have started reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (review coming when I am done with it). As an early example of a system that gets better under stress he mentions city states (presumably as they existed in ancient Greece).
At USV we have been thinking about jurisdictional competition as a way to run more experiments during a time of change. We have focused on small countries such as Iceland and Singapore which might pass progressive Internet legislation but there are relatively few of those. In the US, we have 50 States and that might be a better starting point. So maybe the right thing to do here would be to build a broad coalition for pushing a lot more regulation back from the federal level to the state level.
What is really influencing my thinking here is the progress that we have made with gay marriage. In the DOMA discussion at SCOTUS, some judges are coming at it from an equal protection angle and others from a States’ rights perspective but that may result in a large a coalition. Maybe the right way forward is to go back to breaking up some huge federal programs into smaller state programs and then get 50 parallel experiments going.
This could also be an interesting way for advancing the peer progressive agenda. Some states will be more welcoming than others to the use of peer networks as a way of organizing society.
Because I consider myself a peer progressive who believes in some role for government and the existence of market failures, I usually don’t agree with Senator Rand Paul. But I strongly support the basis of his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination: highlighting the excessive powers available to and sought by the President with regard to killing American citizens without due process. I have long felt that President Obama is completely on the wrong side of the drone program which is an example of the military-industrial-security complex at its most pernicious.
We have been headed in the wrong direction on civil liberties and constitutional protections ever since 9/11. One of the original promises of Obama during the 2008 campaign was to reverse course on that. Since taking office if anything we have been going deeper into the rabbit hole (a metaphor also used by Rand Paul). Whether it is warrantless wiretapping or the militarization of the police or the use of drones domestically, across the board things have become ever more out of control and unbalanced by legislative and judicial oversight.
If any of these are based on an extraordinary clear and present danger then the executive should release the evidence for that either broadly or at least to a large enough group of elected officials to make its case. Without that it is high time to re-institute civil liberties and assure our constitutional guarantees. I applaud Senator Paul for taking a stand here and was thrilled to see Senator Wyden also speak out against the drone program.
I have been wanting to write about the sequester for a couple of days and have been stymied by not knowing where to start because I deeply disagree with both sides. It’s a bit like observing two of our kids fight with each other when both are clearly in the wrong — who do you turn to first? So here is my attempt at blurting it all out in condensed version.
We need to change pretty much everything about the federal budget: how much money goes through government, how it is raised, what we spend it on and how much stuff costs:
1. Government is not the best allocator of funds because it tends to do so through inefficient hierarchies instead of networks. For example, a lot of education dollars should be flowing over platforms like Donors Choose. A lot of labor and agriculture dollars out of the federal budget should not be running through government in the first place.
2. We are taxing the wrong things and in the wrong way. We should reduce the payroll tax and roll out a big honking carbon tax. We want employment (good) and we don’t want carbon (bad). We should lower rates because high marginal rates result in more distortions and get rid of massive loop holes (eg corporate profits abroad).
3. We are spending on the wrong things in our discretionary spending. Our defense spending is totally out of control. We should take it way down. Ditto for Homeland Security + National Intelligence which together are at over $100 Billion. Instead we need to invest more in broadband, public transportation, prizes for medical research (to help lower the cost of healthcare) and other key enablers of the 21st century.
4. Our mandated spending costs way too much: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid together account for $1.62 trillion or a whooping 42% of the budget. There are many reasons why it costs too much but two stand out in particular: first, the run away cost of our healthcare system which require a thorough reform of the pharmaceutical industry and second that we are giving money to people who don’t need it. We need to construct a social security system that’s about need and not about age.
If that sounds like a lot, well it is. The system is broken in a great many places and any discussion of trying to fix one little part of it without fixing the rest just doesn’t make much sense. If the federal budget were a car it would be one with the engine, transmission, brakes and tires all busted while Washington is arguing fiercely over the rearview mirror.
The latest round of fighting coming out of Washington is disheartening because we all seem to be caught up in discussing the tactics of the trillion dollar coin. All the focus is on a single battle and the objective of the war seems murky at best if not entirely forgotten. Even the less spending versus more revenue versus some mix of the two discussion is almost entirely devoid of actual content. The real question we should be debating is what kind of society we envision ten or twenty years from now. Let’s give ourselves a vision first. And let’s make it something grand and important. Let’s have that debate. Let’s have real leadership of thought and let’s be audacious.
As I was working on a post on taxation I realized that I too was getting caught up in the tactics without first stating a clear vision. That has led me to considering what constitutes basic material human needs that with our rapidly improving technological capabilities we should be able to address for everyone. Since it is hard to consider that in the abstract I have been thinking about what I need personally based on actual usage. It turns out to be surprisingly little. Here is the list I have come up with: smartphone, laptop, power, internet, food, housing, transportation, clothing, healthcare. Just to be clear, there are many other things that I use and derive pleasure from and of course there are the many wonderful people in my life who are essential to maning but the list above are what I consider personal necessities.
So my vision for society is a society where these necessities are available to everyone. That does *not* mean government should be providing them directly. For most or maybe all of them a government bureaucracy would be a horrible provider (e.g., I like my Gap jeans — they fit my relatively short and stubby legs). It also does *not* mean that these things should necessarily be free. For many things price is critical for allocation. What I believe it means is re-inventing governance to facilitate the creation of networks where these resources can be provided by the network. I wil have a lot more to say about how that can work in practice in upcoming posts. It will require taking money away from the existing governments and injecting it into these networks.