Archive for December, 2010

Don't canonize the capitalists just yet. "John D. Rockefeller depicted as an emperor of oil and railroad in a contemporary satirical cartoon." (via Wikipedia)

A former Thatcher government minister highlighted the privatization of publicly held companies as a key achievement of the Thatcher premiership. The context was a BBC Radio 5 discussion of the release of papers from the early part of Thatcher’s administration. The former minister commented that Northern Ireland Water was experiencing difficulties now because it was a public company. Water supplies to as many as 40,000 homes were cut off or required rationing due to burst pipes – Northern Ireland Water has pointed to the severe weather conditions and underinvestment as the root cause of the problem (BBC).

I’m fascinated by the private=good, public=bad distinction drawn by the former Conservative minister. This perspective is certainly not unique to UK conservatism. In the narrower UK context, the argument quickly faces the problem that the Scottish water system is also publicly owned and has not faced similar problems though it is also confronting adverse weather conditions. Furthermore, the distinction suffers from the fact that private companies’ track record is not exactly pristine.

Public companies do not have a monopoly on maladministration, waste, or poor decision making. Most critiques of bureaucracies tend to apply to both private and public entities. Employing tunnel vision, privileging standard operating procedure, failing to innovate, all these criticisms could apply to large cooperative enterprises be they public or private. One need look no further than the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to observe the capacity of private companies to make a colossal mess.

You coulda been a contender.

With regard to coordination problems in private enterprise, former HP CEO remarked “If HP knew what HP knows we would be three times more productive.” (BW). The history of computer technology bears out Platt’s lament. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) pioneered research and development work that meant Xerox could have owned modern computing (TotN, PARC). That is, if PARC researchers had not been ordered to give both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs tours by Xerox headquarters in the late 70’s early 80’s (Mac History). Jobs described his tour,

They showed me really three things. But I was so blinded by the first one I didn’t even really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was object oriented programming – they showed me that but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me was a networked computer system… they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc., etc., I didn’t even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me, which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. Now remember it was very flawed, what we saw was incomplete, they’d done a bunch of things wrong. But we didn’t know that at the time but still thought they had the germ of the idea was there and they’d done it very well and within you know ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in technology on show. And the hindsight excuse doesn’t fly, PARC researchers resisted giving the tours, having to be ordered to do so. At least the Soviets had to engage in espionage to obtain tech specifications for US nuclear weapons. Xerox gave tours to potential rivals! As Jobs says, “I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life.” I’ll bet.

As for public companies fulfilling their missions, Électricité de France (EDF) and SNCF come to mind. I admit this assessment is offhand, but as far as I know EDF and SNCF have been providing energy (much of it nuclear) and high speed rail for France fairly successfully for decades. In the UK, the BBC has a laudable track record as public broadcaster. The alleged incompetence of Northern Ireland Water does not demonstrate the incapacity of public corporations to meet the public’s requirements anymore than the financial crisis demonstrates that all banks should be nationalized.

Bureaucratic pathologies are not limited to the public sector and successful delivery of services is not limited to the private sector. I recall a commentator remarking, a dollar spent by a private company is not automatically wise and a dollar spent by a public body is not automatically wasteful. Commentators on the public-private divide should keep this point in mind.


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Wikileaks knows exactly what you’re getting for Christmas (Dan and Dan).


Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise the time,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Another Baroque palace for Christmas. Happy holidays.

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Students are not amused (Nick Clegg and David Cameron, Crown Copyright)

In a speech today at liberal-friendly think tank Centre Forum, David Cameron accused Labour of the worst kind of opportunism for not having outlined a detailed alternative policy on tuition fees. That charge, “the worst kind of opportunism” is leveled more accurately at Cameron’s LibDem coalition partners. The LibDems can’t be called Janus-faced only because they will face in three directions at once in Thursday’s vote on increasing tuition fees – LibDem ministers will vote in favor, some LibDem MPs will abstain, and still other LibDem MPs will vote against.

Pre-election, Nick Clegg declared, “I believe it is time for promises to be kept.” The Clegg that inveighed against the broken promises from Tories and Labour has disappeared. In place of the Clegg who pledged to oppose tuition fees on the campaign trail, we have a Clegg in government raising tuition fees considerably. Does this LibDem reversal in government count as opportunism as well? LibDem’s cratering credibility means students aren’t buying the coalition line on increasing fees as creating a fairer and more progressive higher education system. Frankly, I don’t blame them. The LibDem’s turnabout is as dramatic as a Green Party winning office and announcing that all that global warming stuff doesn’t really matter, and furthermore, it’s time for coal subsidies.

Observing the values in English higher education exposes some of the flaws in the US system. Specifically England because the UK Parliament has control only over higher education in England, not Northern Ireland, Wales, or Scotland; at the moment, only the English system is facing the tuition rise. England is heading down a path which the US has already advanced. Higher education is shifting from a social good towards being a private good. In the US this shift is evidenced by the erosion in the value of Pell Grants and the steady withdrawal of state support for public universities. Instead of acting as a ladder for increased social mobility, both US and English higher education systems leave considerable gaps in the lowest rungs. With the coalition government’s intended path, England moves towards widening these gaps, securing the position of the already advantaged.

A more market driven system – as Cameron said in his Q&A – is the aim. Never mind the larger benefits to society of a highly educated citizenry. I’ll close by quoting Michele Tolela Myers’ excellent piece, A Student is Not an Input:

A business professor told a group of us at one recent conference that to run a successful organization you had better make decisions on the basis of being ”best in the world,” and if you couldn’t be best in the world in something, then you outsourced the function or got rid of the unit that didn’t measure up. Have we really come to believe that we can only measure ourselves in relation to others, and that value and goodness are only measured against something outside the self? Do we really want to teach our children that life is all about beating the competition?

As we in the academy begin to use business-speak fluently, we become accustomed to thinking in commercialized terms about education. We talk no longer as public intellectuals, but as entrepreneurs. And we thus encourage instead of fight the disturbing trend that makes education a consumer good rather than a public good. If we think this way, our decisions will be driven, at least in part, by consumers’ tastes. Are we ready to think that we should only teach what students want or be driven out of business?

The Philosopher in Meditation, Rembrandt (1632)

Physics is hard, it is costly, it is undersubscribed. Should it be taught only in engineering schools? I don’t think so. Should we not teach math because everyone can get a cheap calculator? Should we stop teaching foreign languages because English has become the international language? And what about the arts, literature, philosophy? Many might think them impractical. 

I think we have a responsibility to insist that education is more than learning job skills, that it is also the bedrock of a democracy. I think we must be very careful that in the race to become wealthier, more prestigious, and to be ranked Number One, we don’t lose sight of the real purpose of education, which is to make people free — to give them the grounding they need to think for themselves and participate as intelligent members of a free society. Obsolete or naive? I surely hope not.

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The Tory-LibDem coalition inspires the youth of Britain. (London protester in November, DailyRecord)

Revenge, specifically of the students. This week the UK Parliament will vote on university tuition fees for England. Prior to the election the Liberal Democrats touted their strident opposition to all university tuition fees. Every LibDem MP signed the National Union of Students’ pledge,

I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative. (NUS)

Julian Huppert (left) and Nick Clegg (right) holding their NUS Pledges (NUS Photo)

LibDems campaigned on university campuses, consequently winning some university seats with students’ votes (of the three major parties, the LibDems had the position furthest to the left on tuition fees). For instance, they won Norwich South by 310 votes. This moment in the campaign – LibDem candidates for parliament signing the NUS pledge – parallels George H. W. Bush’s, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” A simple, explicit commitment that can easily be gauged by the public.

Fast forward to today. LibDems have entered a coalition government with the Conservatives. LibDem ministers plan to vote in favor of an increase in tuition fees from about £3,000 per year to a maximum of £9,000 a year beginning in 2012. The Russell Group, the UK’s Ivy League equivalent, are all almost guaranteed to charge the top rate of £9,000 a year. Most universities are expected to raise their fees to the £6,000 a year level. (The government has cut the teaching grant to universities by 80%, tuition fees are replacing government funds (BBC.)

LibDems have argued they’ve included all manner of softeners in the tuition rise – fees are not paid up front, currently only after graduates’ earnings exceed £15,000 a year are fees eligible to be repaid, the new policy raises that threshold for earnings to £21,000 a year, a national scholarship scheme will be established, students who were on free school meals will get up to two years of their fees waived. These commitments are all laudable, but students have the pledges of every sitting LibDem MP. LibDem leader Nick Clegg and other now-senior LibDem government ministers posed for photos with their signed pledges before the election (NUS photo gallery). Furthermore, the pledges weren’t signed years ago, LibDems campaigned on this pledge to students this year. Altogether, these softening measures have not proved satisfactory to students.

Fees will shortly double or triple despite LibDems promise to vote otherwise, thus the protests, marches, and sit ins. LibDem routinely receive poor receptions from young people on Question Time, the weekly town hall-style debating program; not to mention the LibDem panelist’s reception at the Young Voters’ Question Time in late November, train wreck is a kind description. The LibDems are likely to split three ways on this week’s vote on tuition fees, government ministers voting for, some abstaining, and some voting against. The MP from Norwich South, with the 310 vote margin of victory, will be voting against (Guardian). A Guardian commenter dryly noted, 310 votes tend to concentrate the mind.

the Most Beautiful Thing in the World, Damien Hirst (Household gloss paint with butterfly wings, 2003)

This coalition could spell disaster for the LibDems. Tuition fees are a vivid example of dramatic LibDem reversal, but by no means the only one. Complicity in dramatic budget cuts will also stand out in the minds of left-leaning voters who imagined the LibDems as a progressive party.

I’ll close with one of the more staid student protest chants,

Shame. Shame.
Shame on you.
Shame on you for turning blue.

(The UK has precisely the opposite color signifiers for party identity – in the US blue is Democrat and red is Republican, in the UK blue is Conservative and red is Labour. The LibDems are orange.)

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Watch out for the censors! Main Reading Room, Library of Congress


In an excellent post, A Daily Kos diarist describes the recent bizarre set of interventions by the US government over Wikileaks as “a resurgence of McCarthyism”. McCarthyism encapsulates the atmosphere of intimidation these interventions represent. But personally, I’m partial to Kafkaesque as a descriptor – it captures the bureaucracies gone awry element. Our federal overlords government says information remains classified until the federal government says so. No matter the barrels of newsprint, acres of newspaper coverage, or accumulated manhours of punditry.

Three developments are being reported, federal government interventions directed at current federal employees and contractors, potential federal employees, and the general public using federal services. Federal agencies are promulgating a memo whose template was set in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Access to Wikileaks is being blocked on federal computer systems, and federal employees and contractors are being warned not to access the Wikileaks site (TPM, Guardian).

The intervention regarding potential federal employees is less clear, whenever I see it reported there is an intermediary taking action and it is not apparent that the position outlined in the email is actually the position of the federal government. Basically, an email purports to be passing along advice about employment with the federal government. The email warns students not to link to Wikileaks materials or comment on social media sites as this activity could jeopardize future security clearance (BU, CU).

Finally, the federal government has made an intervention when acting as a service provider. Specifically, the Library of Congress has blocked access to Wikileaks on their wireless network (TPM). A Library of Congress spokesperson told CNN the Library

decided to block WikiLeaks because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information. Unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.

Horses and barn doors come to mind.

With regard to blocking the websites employees can visit, I tend to view employees as fully adult human beings rather than as errant children to be micromanaged. Charge employees with acting professionally and make the internet available to them, unfiltered.

On potential federal employees, it is insane to think that every tweet and link concerning Wikileaks should be overseen by Big Brother the federal government. Certainly before assuming any duties, signing any confidentiality agreements, or swearing any oaths, prospective federal employees should be able to participate in the life of the democracy. The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País have cooperated in reporting on Wikileaks; no less than three newspapers of record in that list. A human resources strategy that screens out the readers of those papers strikes me as unwise, to say the least. It is an abuse of the idea of a security clearance to draw such overbroad boundaries.

Lastly, the Library of Congress filtering sites accessible to its patrons – the policy is contrary to the ethos of any institution claiming the title of library. Diffusion of knowledge does not sit well alongside state censorship.

Altogether, the federal government’s interventions make as much sense as the sage advice: Burying your head in the sand will put the genie back in the bottle, thus recovering the spilled milk you’ve been crying over.

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The Reichstag

Earlier I expressed concerns about the possible consequences for informants given Wikileaks’ publication of US diplomatic cables. I highlighted a cable from January that discusses a possible assassination attempt by Iranian intelligence. Iran is a tough case to unpick because the media can’t freely report the ins and outs of public bodies’ behavior. But the case of Germany shows that informants face, at least, reprimand for discussing delicate matters with US diplomats. Der Speigel articles touch on two cases that reinforce my concerns: Mole in Germany’s FDP Party Comes Forward and How America Views the Germans.

The title Mole in Germany’s FDP Party Comes Forward is not exactly accurate, unless you have a very expansive definition of what it is to come forward. After the diplomatic cables and der Spiegel revealed intimate American familiarity with sensitive negotiations to form the current government, the FDP identified people familiar with the coalition formation talks to question about the disclosure of sensitive documents to American diplomats. The FDP also asked the potential American sources to submit statements under oath.

The source, reportedly Helmut M., had provided American diplomats with “internal papers from the coalition talks, including participant lists from working groups, schedules and handwritten notes” in 2009 (DS). Having been found, the source “has been relieved of his current duties, but not fired.” Der Spiegel concludes, “[FDP] officials said he would remain an employee at the FDP’s national headquarters, but that it had not be determined in what capacity.” (DS). Even without a particular name, a motivated investigator will try to put together the puzzle pieces.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama (via Der Spiegel)

How America Views the Germans
has expansive coverage on the extent of American knowledge of goings on in German politics. Here too, an American source has been exposed, this time an employee at the CDU party,

[Friedbert] Pflüger figures repeatedly as a source for the Americans, who recognize how valuable he is. The words “please protect” are noted in parentheses after his name.

Apparently Pflüger’s name has not been protected, it is in one of Germany’s leading news publications. But I am more interested in these German cases as illustrative. The American picture of the inner workings of German politics may suffer for a time. No worries, Germany is an ally. But supposing the American picture of Iran or North Korea is damaged, it will take a great deal of time and effort to rebuild. While the macro-diplomatic picture has not changed, I can see why the Secretary of State and some American Senators are pushing back hard against Wikileaks. Still, what Glenn Greenwald calls “the increasingly bloodthirsty two-minute hate session aimed at Julian Assange” is way over the top.

The American sources in Germany, Helmut M. and Friedbert Pflüger, will be fine. Maybe they will be reprimanded, maybe they will be demoted, maybe they will be fired – but their physical security is not endangered. In the case of less open societies, we can’t just leaf through a major newsweekly and find out who has been tracked down by party or intelligence officials and what the consequences are for them and their families.

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The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David (1793)

I can’t really say I had a deep reservoir of respect for Jonah Goldberg or Bill Kristol before. Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Kristol’s brief career as a New York Times columnist were, to be polite, unedifying. But they’ve both moved even further into the territory of irredeemable reactionaries with their comments on Julian Assange.

Goldberg was quicker off the mark, asking in late October after the Iraq war leaks: “Why isn’t Julian Assange dead?” and “Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?” (NR). Kristol picked up the macabre saber in late November with the release of the diplomatic cables asking,

Why can’t we act forcefully against WikiLeaks? Why can’t we use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators, wherever they are? Why can’t we disrupt and destroy WikiLeaks in both cyberspace and physical space, to the extent possible? Why can’t we warn others of repercussions from assisting this criminal enterprise hostile to the United States?

In his piece, Goldberg simultaneously presses his assassinate Julian Assange message, “It’s a serious question.”, while putting the brakes on the argument later in the piece: “Now, I know there are many solid answers to my question.” Goldberg concludes, “Ultimately, I don’t expect the U.S. government to kill Assange…”. Kristol offers far fewer caveats, pressing his point home in his conclusion, urging the US president and Congress to act to “degrade, defeat, and destroy Wikileaks”.

Now, I am not a fan of Julian Assange. In terms of upholding high journalistic standards, Wikileaks has fallen short of the mark. Journalists act as mediators. They edit, they analyze, they synthesize, that’s their value added. Wikileaks newspaper partners have worked at bringing coherence to these documents, Wikileaks less so. Also, I’m unsure that Wikileaks did enough work redacting and anonymizing information that could be used to retaliate against sources.

One of the first cables I read raised my concerns, “[Source Removed] Targeted by Iranian Regime” (I had to use Google’s cache, but the Wikileaks link here). The cable includes the line that,

His suspicions were confirmed after he received a message from a well-placed friend who told Nourizadeh he had seen dozens of photos of him on the desk of Iranian Deputy Intelligence Minister Alavi.

Admittedly, I have no knowledge of the methods of intelligence agencies, but I’m guessing Iranian intelligence would want to know about this “well placed friend” who tipped off their potential assassination target (the cable is dated 21 January 2010). In fact, my feeling when reading this whole cable was, I’m not sure I should have access to this, certainly not in this detail. All of that to say simply, I have my reservations about Assange and Wikileaks’ work.

Not to be emulated, East Germany's Stasi headquarters (via Wikipedia)

But assassination? The idea is unethical foolishness made manifest. Goldberg and Kristol richly deserve derision for proposing such violent stupidity. Were the US to travel even partway down such a route it would mirror Iran in the ways the diplomatic cable highlights in the Comment section:

…it marks a clear escalation in the regime’s attempts to intimidate critics outside its borders, and could have a chilling effect on journalists, academics and others… who until recently felt little physical threat from the regime. …while clearly taking the threat seriously, [the target] will not be cowed — he’s faced this type of threat before…

I hope no one ever need write in such terms about the United States.

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