Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is C-SPAN Coverage of Congress Really a Good Idea?

I used to think that C-SPAN,  which televises the House and Senate,  congressional hearings, and the like,  was an unmitigated blessing.  

Lately,  though,  I have had second thoughts.  C-SPAN has many wonderful programs (Book TV,  the series on first ladies, etc.).  But its coverage of Congress is causing fundamental damage to the ability of Congress to do its job.

C-SPAN televises sessions of  House and Senate in which only a handful of the members  are present.  Speeches are addressed,  not to the other members of Congress, who are not present,  but to the TV audience.  This makes sense for members who love free publicity  but takes time which speakers might have used consulting with other members of their houses,  with staff, or with constituents. 

C-SPAN sometimes covers hearings in which only committee members of one  party are present.  These hearings are orchestrated to score points with the public for one side of an issue or the other.  They don’t contribute to serious negotiations among committee members about  what needs to be done.
Since all public policies have both advantages and disadvantages,  simplistic analysis assuming that some proposals are all benefits and no costs or all costs and no benefits must be avoided.  Yet that is exactly what many of the speeches and hearings telecast by C-SPAN provide us with.

I think that C-SPAN should stop televising sessions of the Senate and House except on the rare occasions when quorums are present and serious business is being done.  It should stop covering committee hearings in which both parties are not represented and in which there is no serious discussion of both the pros and cons of proposed legislation.  This would give it time to broadcast more of its other programming,  which is often more substantive,  and it would help push Congress back towards the functionality it has lost in recent decades.

Such a pullback by C-SPAN  would have some costs for democracy,  which requires an informed electorate.  But remember,  all policies have both costs and benefits.  The benefit here would be a Congress that is more functional and whose members spend their time interacting more productively.  This would be a good tradeoff.

It has long been understood that serious negotiations must be conducted in private,  so that negotiators are not trapped into hardened initial positions by fear of losing face or being accused of inconsistency.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was not open to press or public,  though the results of that Convention were of course made public when the proposed Constitution was sent out for ratification.  President Woodrow Wilson famously called in international relations for “open covenants,  openly arrived at.”  But  experience teaches that diplomatic negotiations are more fruitful when conducted in secret, so that we get “open covenants,  secretly arrived at.”   

If members of Congress want to continue giving speeches to empty chambers in order to get something printed in the Congressional Record,  which they have long done,  let them do so.  But don’t give them additional incentives for such behavior by putting them on live TV.  The time has come to help Congress resume its traditional functionality by treating its members to a healthy dose of benign neglect by C-SPAN. 

Mountains and Molehills: Why Data Mining Makes Sense

Mountains and Molehills:  Why Data Mining Makes Sense

Twice in the last ten years our credit card company asked if we had made purchases flagged by their software as deviations from our usual patterns.  Both times they were right; we had made no such transactions. Visa  promptly gave us a new account number. I was delighted with their data-mining , even though it "snooped" on my transaction patterns. What skin off my teeth was that "invasion of privacy"?

After 9-11 the F.B.I.,  which had noticed some of the unusual activity by the people planning the attack,  was criticized for failing to “connect the dots.”   If those dots had been connected federal authorities might have seen the pattern suggested by the connections and headed off the 9-11 disaster.  Critics of the recently revealed data-mining operations forget  that it is impossible to connect dots that have not been collected in the first place. 

In the present case the dots are individual calls from one telephone number to another.   Federal agencies have been collecting records of all these calls.  Responding to this,  the New York Times recently editorialized that Congress should enact  “legislation to limit the collection of call records and the monitoring of Internet traffic to that of people suspected of terrorism, ending the mass warehousing of everyone’s data.”     

This editorial misses the whole concept of data mining,  in which computers scan immense amounts of data (like which phone number phones which phone number, when, and for how long) and pick up patterns which suggest activity  meriting further investigation. Limiting collection of this information to calls associated with people already under suspicion would make it much less likely to detect people who are not under suspicion but ought to be.

Remember that the data about phone calls being swept up by government agencies does not include what people are saying in those calls.  After patterns have been detected,  authorities may place wiretaps on specific people,  but only after getting specific authorization by a court.  

Of course this data mining harms would-be terrorists,  but aside from that what harm does the so-called invasion of people’s privacy cause anybody?  What difference does it make in our lives?

“Big data” is a recent phenomenon made possible by modern computers,  which can scan immense amounts of information and detect patterns which could never be found by finite human investigators. Data mining techniques are already being used by astronomers,  traffic control people,  medical researchers, and in many other fields.  They are improving our ability to understand the universe,   make traffic flow more smoothly, and treat diseases.  There is no reason why we should not also exploit this technology
to improve the security of our people. 

The private groups which have declared war against the United States do not hesitate to use modern technology (cell phones,  the internet, explosives, etc.) to further their plans.  There is no sense in placing artificial limits on our own ability to use technology to limit the damage they can do.

In older wars people were conscripted, shipped off to fight, placed under wage controls, taxed more, and endured rationing. Surely the minimal "invasions of privacy"  caused by the programs recently revealed pale in comparison.

This piece has run in the Oregonian and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Edward Snowden: A different possible interpretation of his actions

This piece models how the same facts can be interpreted in very different ways, and is also something of a parody of conspiracy theory but with the twist that the hypothetical conspiracy (which is admittedly unlikely) is by the good guys and for a legitimate purpose. 

Edward Snowden:   A  different possible interpretation of his actions

Decades ago I read a novel,  Typewriter in the Sky,  by L. Ron Hubbard (who later founded “Dianetics”).  I remember this scifi novel only dimly—and won’t read it again to refresh my memory. Reading it once was bad enough!  But the general idea was that its protagonist falls into a  universe recognizably created by a work of fiction being written by a friend who is a very bad novelist.  Our hero—who can hear a typewriter clacking away up in the sky---is horrified, since he knows how his friend’s mind works and realizes he is in for a terrible fate.

I recalled this novel recently while thinking about the Snowden affair.  It seems to me that the Snowden story looks like a very bad novel..  

Why, for example,  would American authorities make such a fuss about Edward Snowden’s revelations?  The NSA data-mining of connections between phone numbers, after all,  is just taking common sense advantage of opportunities presented by modern computers.  Since the mining does not capture the contents of the communications flowing through the telephone networks,  it does not violate anybody’s privacy in those communications.

Why did Chinese authorities with influence in Hong Kong allow someone supposedly wanted by China’s leading trade partner and implicit ally to fly off to Moscow, and why are Russian authorities being so cagey about Snowden?   

To make sense of the Snowden affair might be easier if we look at it from a very different angle.  No doubt this interpretation is improbable,  but even its bare possibility is worth thinking about:  what if Snowden is loyally playing the leading role in a scenario staged to bag a large number of would-be terrorists?

In this scenario,  Snowden made his revelations about NSA data mining,  not in defiance of our government,  but at its behest.  In this scenario his flight to Hong Kong and then to Moscow and seeking political asylum are merely a magnificent publicity stunt.  The goal of the stunt would be draw attention to his revelations and thereby scare terrorists into changing how they communicate.  Such changes,  which NSA computers could spot,  might identify plotters who otherwise could have  avoided detection.   

At the very least this plot might frighten some terrorists into using less efficient methods of communicating with each other, a goal worthwhile in itself.    

If Snowden’s “leaks” were actually part of an official operation,  we would want to commend him if the true story can ever be told.  So perhaps we should avoid rushing to judgment about him.

It would be interesting to know how China and Russia would fit into this scenario.  Are they in the dark about Snowden,  or are they knowingly playing their own part in the operation?  After all,  Russia and China have legitimate concerns about terrorism and could have good reasons to cooperate with us.

Of course such a plot would be a massive deception,  but deception in policy matters is not always bad.  The successful landings in Normandy on D-Day,  for example,  were helped by elaborate (and successful) efforts to bamboozle the Nazis into thinking the attack was going to be elsewhere. 

Readers may wonder if publishing speculation about a plot might sabotage the plot, if one actually exists.  But by now any terrorist changes in communication patterns stimulated by Snowden’s revelations—whether or not there was a plot--- will already have happened and the NSA computers will have safely recorded all the dots that need to be connected.  

Plot or no plot,  I wish them luck in connecting those dots.

This piece has run in the Oregonian and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.