Go to previous post:
Good gravy!

Go to Electrolite's front page.

Go to next post:
Grandmaster Degler

Our Admirable Sponsors

July 30, 2002

Dogs and cats living together Phyllis Schlafly inveighs against the odious Ashcroft-proposed “TIPS” plan. Yes, that Phyllis Schlafly.

(Via James Capozzola of The Rittenhouse Review, who is understandably unable to resist appending “You go, girl!”) [09:06 PM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Dogs and cats living together:

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 11:56 AM:

I still don't exactly understand why the TIPS program is so "odious". This attitude seems born more out of paranoia than anything else.

It seems analogous to a nationwide "Neighborhood Watch". Is the practice of neighbors keeping an eye on one another's homes "odious"?

There needs to be oversight, of course. Any intelligence has the potential for abuse. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be gathered in the first place.

A little paranoia is a good thing, but invoking 1984-style, black armbanded spy networks is over the top.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 02:38 PM:

I think a lot of people perceive a significant difference between a "neighborhood watch" and a network of anonymous informers reporting to a remote central agency. You don't have to be a wild-eyed paranoid to think there might be something unwholesome about the latter.

Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 05:25 PM:

This isn't the first time Schafly has startled me by calling the Emperor on his birthday suit in public -- I think it last happened over the senate judiciary committee and the Senator for Disney's charming way of furthering his constituency interests.

Then again, maybe I only think she's interesting because I don't get to read her every week. (Other country's political pundits can be quite fascinating, once in a while ...)

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 05:56 PM:

They wouldn't be anonymous, at least from what I've heard. And what's so bad about a "national database" (key eerie music). Or for that matter, the ominous National ID card that Schafly warns us will be so sinister. People keep talking about all the threats to civil liberties as if Ashcroft is already ringing cities with National Guardsmen and converting warehouses into reeducation camps (or is this right around the slippery-sloped corner and I just can't see it?).

Most people I hear on this subject just need to take a deep breath.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 06:41 PM:

As Glenn Reynolds remarked the other day, the basic answer to "what's so bad about" questions like the above is the War on Some Drugs, in pursuit of which our authorities have behaved themselves very badly indeed. It's easy to argue with straw men, but you don't have to claim that Ashcroft & co. are on the verge of "ringing cities with National Guardsmen and converting warehouses into reeducation camps" to be alarmed at what's being proposed.

I'm a liberal, not a libertarian; I'm not disposed to see every government employee as a potential jackbooted thug. But I'm skeptical of our current authorities' good judgement when it comes to deciding which civil liberties to respect and which to ignore--and whose.

Some people always "need to take a deep breath." And on the other hand, sometimes the excitable alarmists are right. An argument that rests on the proposition that the excitable people must be wrong because, look, they're excitable...is, in fact, an argument from emotion.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 07:35 PM:

I didn't think I was the one creating straw men (Schafly's the one who invokes Waco, for goodness sake).

And though my posts may have given the impression that I think TIPS is a splended idea, I don't. But I prefer arguments that stem from specific potentials for abuse rather than trying to incite fear or paranoia via the slippery slope.

In fact, the best arguments against something like TIPS have to do with the fact that it creates another needless bureaucracy at taxpayer expense. Why not argue the logistics of the TIPS database talking to the FBIs, the CIAs, or any sort of new Homeland Defense Department's, instead of appealing to paranoia?

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 08:27 PM:

The case against building large, convenient government databases isn't a slippery slope argument. It's a transaction cost argument. Here's a really stylized model which illustrates the issue.

Suppose that we have a policeman, Virgil Samms, deciding whether to look up data on someone. If Virgil uses this to catch a real criminal, that benefits him by 20 units. Virgil can also use his powers for private mischief, and the private benefit he feels is 5 units. First, suppose the cost of looking up the data is 10 units of effort. In this case, the net utility for looking up data to catch real criminals is 20 - 10 = +10 units. However, the net utility for mischief is 5 - 10 = -5 units. So Virgil has a positive incentive to look up data on real criminals and no incentive to use the data for ill. Now let's imagine that the Patrol computerizes its records, so that the effort of looking up data drops to 1 unit. Now Virgil's utility calculation for mischief changes dramatically: he sees a net utility of 5 - 1 = +4 units. There's now a positive incentive for Virgil to abuse his powers.

Now, Virgil Samms might be incorruptible, but in the real world police are all-too-human. They respond to incentives just like anyone else, and dramatically lowering the cost of data without fundamental reforms to cope with that change is a profoundly risky idea. National ID cards are always mooted as a step towards building a single point-of-access database on the citizenry, which lowers the cost of getting personal information. This isn't a theoretical fear, either. In the early 1970s the bureaucrats IRS refused to go along with Nixon's attempt to use it as a tool for punishing his enemies; in the 1990s random low-level employees were joyriding through personal data for private gain. Modern civil servants are not any less principled than their forbears; it's just that the cost of information has fallen to the point that they face much greater temptations than their predecessors.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is going to be the major public-policy challenge of the next twenty years: right now, we have a set of public institutions that work reasonably well at respecting the individual citizen's rights, given 20th century information-processing tech. But it's also clear that they won't do a good job when 21st century computational power is available -- malefeasance just becomes too tempting as access to extensive personal information becomes easy.

The question is, how do we build institutions that take good advantage of cheap computation and Moore's law without accidentally building a panopticon state? Until we have a good answer for that question, I think it makes a great deal of sense to be maintain a presumption against permitting the government to increase its powers of information gathering and coordination.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 11:14 AM:

Is Derek James suggesting that Waco isn't a reason to distrust unfettered federal law enforcement? I'm not exactly a member of the Janet-Reno-Is-Evil-Incarnate brigade, but Waco sure looks like an atrocity to me, and an excellent reason to be skeptical about the ability of the current three-latter agencies to find their ass in the dark with both hands.

Neel Krishnaswami's post above makes some excellent points. So does Glenn Reynolds, this morning, right here. "...[T]he system can't deal with the information it gets now. Who's going to analyze those tips, nearly all of which will be useless, to extract the good ones?"

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 02:08 PM:

Reynold's point is a good one, and like I said, it seems vastly more reasonable to argue against the TIPS system on logistical and economic grounds, as opposed to innuendo that it will lead to a police state.

Waco was a travesty, no doubt. But I firmly believe that the vast majority of Federal malfeasance, as you suggest, is a result of incompetence, rather than nefarious intent.

There was discussion on C-Span this morning about expanding wire-tapping powers for surveilling *non-citizens*. Moussaoui was not wiretapped prior to 9/11 because the FBI couldn't effectively link him to terrorist sponsorship. This demonstrates to me that the FBI, in many respects, has been weakened to such a degree that they can't effectively deal with antiterrorism efforts. Clearly there is a line between abolishing the FBI and giving them carte blanche with regard to surveillance powers. The question of how to find that balance is an interesting one, but I'd prefer to hear it discussed rationally, rather than with reactionary paranoia.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 02:48 PM:

The FBI had enough evidence on Moussaoui to have him indefinitely detained. I have a hard time accepting that it takes more evidence to have someone wiretapped than to have them thrown in prison.

Once Moussaoui was detained, the FBI dragged its feet on investigating his belongings (e.g., his laptop, which did contain information linking him to other people who were being watched for suspicious behavior similar to Moussaoui's). Again, I have a hard time accepting that it takes more evidence to read someone's laptop than to throw them into prison.

There are two possible conclusions we can draw from the Moussaoui case: It is too easy to have someone thrown into prison, relative to how hard it is to invesigate them; or; the FBI dragged its feet in the Moussaoui investigation for reasons unrelated to how much they actually could investigate. These are not, of course, completely exclusive conclusions.

I will also side with Patrick in saying that one doesn't have to believe that the government is already building the death camps to be worried about how the government will restrict civil liberties; the War on Some Drugs But Not Others already demonstrates quite effectively the abuses that the government will commit, routinely, in the pursuit of a misguided policy which has no viable opposition.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2002, 02:44 PM:

Kevin...it seems to me that the Moussaoui case is a combination of the factors you mention. From what I've read, the restrictions of Federal wire-tapping are incredibly strict (and probably rightly so).

But a certain amount of common sense has to be applied to policy decisions. If Congress introduces a bill to expand the Federal wire-tapping powers of the FBI to obtain a warrant against non-citizens, this doesn't trouble me in the least. Again, the amount of power that should be given to the FBI is a complex issue, but it should be thought about rationally.

All too often I hear a staunch reactionism, instead of common sense. In the case I mentioned above, many people (not straw men) immediately balk at the idea, citing the ever-famous slippery slope. If it's easier to wire-tap foreigners, soon it'll be easier to wire-tap citizens, then the FBI will be tapping my phone (like they give a crap what you had for breakfast yesterday morning).

Having lived abroad, it never ceases to amaze me that Americans, with the greatest range of civil liberties, are the most paranoid about losing them. There are many more laws and checks and balances protecting your civil rights than anywhere else in the world. (aside: Perhaps the reason we've been able to get and maintain those rights is because of this paranoia...dunno.)

But at this point, both the right and left in this country talk about the loss of civil rights with nothing short of an alarmist tone. Organizations like the NRA have made damn sure that everyday citizens have the right to own arsenals with firepower far beyond that conceived by the founding fathers, and they're not budging an inch. The minute we restrict the right of average Joe American to own a Glock with a 17-round clip, right around the corner they'll be taking away all our guns. The left has the ACLU.

As Patrick's original post pointed out, it appears this pervasive distrust of the Federal government is common ground for both ends of the political spectrum.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2002, 12:23 AM:

"Having lived abroad, it never ceases to amaze me that Americans, with the greatest range of civil liberties, are the most paranoid about losing them. There are many more laws and checks and balances protecting your civil rights than anywhere else in the world. (aside: Perhaps the reason we've been able to get and maintain those rights is because of this paranoia...dunno.)"

Gee, you think?

"But at this point, both the right and left in this country talk about the loss of civil rights with nothing short of an alarmist tone."

It's true. I view the loss of rights with alarm. Imagine that.

"Organizations like the NRA have made damn sure that everyday citizens have the right to own arsenals with firepower far beyond that conceived by the founding fathers, and they're not budging an inch."

My dim view of the NRA has been discussed on this weblog before, but I can't help observing that Americans own quite a lot of technology "far beyond that conceived by the founding fathers". Ascribing this to the NRA is quite a stretch.

Meanwhile, if you seriously think the average American has more right to arm themselves now than in 1792, you're simply wrong. I certainly don't, because I live in New York City, where gun licenses are reserved for celebrities, the rich, and their bodyguards.

"As Patrick's original post pointed out, it appears this pervasive distrust of the Federal government is common ground for both ends of the political spectrum."

What Patrick perhaps didn't make clear is that he views this, on balance, not as a bug but as a feature.

There's plenty of overacting whenever various civil liberties are threatened, but I wouldn't trade it for a more complacent society.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2002, 09:02 AM:

Patrick wrote: "Gee, you think?"

Your sarcastic reply takes the answer the question for granted. To give you a straight answer: no, not necessarily. American history is full of examples of people who worked to further civil rights, not through paranoia, but through other (and oftentimes, better) motivations (e.g., MLK).

"It's true. I view the loss of rights with alarm. Imagine that."

Okay...

Again, I think there's a medium somewhere between alarmism and complacency. In the example mentioned above, a law expanding FBI wire-tapping powers for the surveillance of non-citizens, how could you possibly argue that this curtailed *your* civil rights from any angle other than the slippery slope?

I'm honestly not sure whether the FBI doesn't have enough power to effectively deal with counterterrorism efforts, or as others have insinuated, they're just lazy and incompetent. But I don't think it's a given that any expansion of FBI powers is necessarily bad.

"Meanwhile, if you seriously think the average American has more right to arm themselves now than in 1792, you're simply wrong."

If you seriously think that I can't buy vastly more firepower at my local Wal-Mart than your average citizen of 1792, you are simply wrong. Which, if you read my original statement, is the point I was making.

"There's plenty of overacting whenever various civil liberties are threatened, but I wouldn't trade it for a more complacent society."

Neither would I. If I could, I'd choose door number three, the happy medium of common sense I referred to earlier, where the majority of people react neither as chicken littles nor as sheep.

Maybe that's too much to hope for.