Gaming the System

Today is election day. The children, in this school district, have the day off. It should be a state or national holiday, if elections are important to this civil society, or even if they are just a spectacle. I intentionally did not vote in uncontested races.

I’m conservative. I believe that what exists has value, even if not readily apparent. I do not believe things should be changed for light or frivolous reasons. This generally means that I despise a lot of what passes for conservatism these days. The moral decay of society — I’ll bet you think I mean something else by that than what I mean by it. See how corrupt we’ve become? — pits my conservative inclination in constant war with my desire for a purging flame. But one thing I would see changed is how the system is turned upon itself, where the letter of the law subverts the intent. (Now, if perversion is the intent, then we need to have a discussion about principles. I’ll bring my whip.) Such as in, for example, elections.

The present system, unless otherwise specified, requires only a simple majority of those voting for a representative to be chosen or a proposition to pass. The assumption is that to refrain from casting a ballot is to abstain, a neutral position. The ballot itself has only binary options: for or against. This assumption leads to trickery such as adjusting polling hours and voting requirements in order to affect who votes and how many votes are cast. More generally, it’s become a means by which incumbents maintain control over the system rather than one where the outcome of the election reflects the will of the people. Gerrymandering is the best known case of the incumbent picking his voters.

Anyway, here in New York State we have, in addition to local town and county governments, various special districts with the ability to tax: the school district, the library district, the fire district, the water district, the sewer district, the i-have-a-fwend-in-wome district, etc. The bulk of local taxation arises from the school district budget and secondarily from the town budget, which is predominantly highway maintenance. During the general election, local offices are often uncontested, having been resolved in party committee meetings or a primary earlier in the year. Elections for the special districts might not to be held on the same date as the general election. The library district, for example, puts its budget up for a vote during the general election, while the school district budget vote and school board elections are by law held in May. The fire district is planning a special election for a bond referendum, to be held in December.

I suggest the following two changes, in addition to the one I made in the first paragraph.

  1. There can be no uncontested elections. None of the Above is always a candidate.
  2. Winning requires a majority of the total population, rather than of those who participate in the election.

I’m sure there are problems with these suggestions. For one thing, they’ll make it more difficult to win an election: That’s intentional. Let’s try it with something significant but inconsequential, such as a bond issue for a local fire district, or the school board.

Whose Safety is Secured through Obscurity?

The rules of the game determine how it is played. And if few but the players know the rules, the spectators can be confused. They might believe in an ideal version of the game that doesn’t exist, but which they insistently tell new observers is how the game is played.

I speak of politics and the making of laws.

To satisfy this discrepancy between the taught ideal and observed behavior, I propose the following, none of which I expect to be adopted:

  • that there be one or more rooms, legislative chambers if you will, reserved for the purpose of making laws;
  • that all debate on laws be within the legislative chambers;
  • that debate cannot start or continue unless a majority of the rule-makers is physically present in the chambers;
  • that all debate be a matter of public record;
  • that all discussions outside of the chambers in which rule-makers participate be a matter of public record;
  • that, except in cases of national emergency requiring a declaration of war, all meetings of the assembly be held after sunrise and before sunset, local to the chambers;
  • that all bills pertain to one and only one subject;
  • that if a bill cannot be introduced and read aloud in its entirety before the end of a day, then the bill must be reduced in scope until said reading is possible;
  • that all votes be taken in person in the chambers in the full view of the assembly;
  • that all votes be attributed to the voter.

Much of the business of Congress is conducted secretly, alone or in small groups, under the cover of darkness, not unlike a conspiracy against the Public. And when Congress does act in public, it is naught but a performance.

But, you might ask, what about National Security? Are we at War that such an exception is necessary? Who then are we at war with?

Transitioning to a Post-Westphalia World

What prevents the signatories of the TPP or TTIP, and their ilk, from just saying no when the investor-state dispute settlement provisions don’t go the way they’d want? That is, if the state still has a monopoly on the use of force, can’t they just kill the investors?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t binding arbitration only binding if one feels bound by it?

Take some time to read this overview of the system [full series] from Buzzfeed for more detail.

Sorry. Procedures.

I’m reading an excellent book right now that’s discussing how we surrender our judgment to detailed rules and procedures: The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, by Philip K. Howard.

These problems plague any large organization, not just government.

An example from today: One of the applications I support needs to increase storage by 26 GB (spread across 8 filesystems on 3 hosts). (IBM doubled the size of some software.)

The Company funds increases of up to 10% of the existing filesystem from the operations budget, but requires a special project and dedicated budget line for anything over that. The needed increase is greater than 10% of the size of the existing filesystems.

So, I could increase the 3 TB filesystem by 307 GB, but not the 3 GB filesystem by 3 GB?

Kinda funny what happens when people don’t understand percentages, isn’t it?

For All Debts, Public and Private

As a young man with few dollars, I used to spend some time admiring the engraving on those few I had. I’ve long been struck by the phrase printed on Federal Reserve Notes: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

It is somewhat odd that some think dollars, or other currency, has value in and of itself, when the value the currency has is only in relation to the demand of others for it. By others, we mean primarily the entity printing the currency: They demand it in taxes.

Consider a schoolyard bully who is satisfied with anything I have in my pockets. Any of those things may be used to pay for his protection. But suppose that one day he decides that he will only accept Hershey’s chocolates. This gives Hershey’s chocolates a special value in the schoolyard, and trade of those chocolates between children may result. Further suppose that the bully gives his friends special tokens of affection, and will not pummel those who hold them. These tokens would also have value, and may be exchanged for Hershey’s chocolates, or for other goods. In time, the bully may decide that he no longer likes chocolate, and will only protect those who have his favors.

Angling for Satisfaction

The
excerpts from, and an interview with the author of, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency are disturbing, and reinforce what we already suspected.

In what I hope is not a quixotic exercise, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has brought suit, Jewel v. National Security Agency, et al.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies today [September 18, 2008] on behalf of AT&T customers to stop the illegal, unconstitutional, and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records. The five individual plaintiffs are also suing President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, former Attorney General and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and other individuals who ordered or participated in the warrantless domestic surveillance.

Go Wake Up the Judge

You know how in the movies, when the cops want to bust in on the mob doing their dirty deeds, first they go wake up the judge in the middle of the night, or drag him out of his poker game or away from his mistress, and have him issue a warrant?

Oh, wait, those aren’t current movies.

In an otherwise interesting post, Jeff Jarvis writes

“It so happens that I agree with Obama on this issue (and I know my view is as unpopular as his). When government forces you do to something then that force must come with immunity. The problem is not the telcos going along but the government making the demand and there being no check on that. But that’s a different debate.”

There was no force. There was willing participation without a warrant. Contrast with Qwest, which refused. The remaining telecommunication providers went along because it was their Patriotic Duty, even though their participation was illegal without a warrant. If there was force, it was a kind peculiar to regulatory regimes: trading dirty deeds for FCC merger approval.

There was a check, even if a pathetic one of Top Secret paperwork known only by handful of amenable judges. The administration ignored it.

The revisions supplant that paperwork check with an even flimsier one, the ipse dixit clause, which lets the Executive do anything as long as the Executive says the Executive says it is ok.

That’s not a check. That’s a blank check.

As Cruel as Society Demands

I am not quite sure how this august panel of nine judges decides what constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment, unless it is by simply following the precedent rather than considering whether the punishment was properly enacted and in conformity with the severity of the crime. The majority’s opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana relies on Coker v. Georgia, which held that sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape, and so decides that the death penalty is also excessive here.

While the opinion protests the utter cruelty of the acts in the present case, I suspect that the Court has allowed themselves to be guided too much by care for recent precedent and not considered fully the disparity between the crime and the punishment. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, finds “evolving standards of decency” allow the rapist to live because few states passed legislation prescribing death for the crime of rape. As well, because of various institutional features in our system of justice, the prosecution of cases seeking the death penalty for rape might further harm the victim.

In my opinion, the Louisiana statute was not cruel enough. The simple death of modern executions is quick and relatively painless. Better would be if the criminal were hung, drawn, and quartered, with his head impaled on a stake on the city walls to warn others. J. Kennedy would disagree, When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint. And yet, the Court explicitly exempts crimes against the State:

Our concern here is limited to crimes against individual persons. We do not address, for example, crimes defining and punishing treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity, which are offenses against the State. As it relates to crimes against individuals, though, the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.

If the State can punish crimes against itself, then why cannot a rape victim choose the punishment for her assailant?

I fear that our Law has backed itself into a corner over time. By removing all punishments other than fines or length of imprisonment, we find ourselves unable to respond proportionately to crimes. How long should we imprison a rapist? Ten years? One might as well fail to file one’s taxes.

If the State is not willing to act in retribution, then the more humane punishments of confining the criminal to the general population of a prison, while widely publishing the crimes committed, or of declaring the criminal an outlaw, should suffice. In either case, public opinion will devise its own suitable punishment.